Echoes of the same idea: freedom to information

I’m reading echoes of the same idea of the freedom to information tonight from Marilyn Johnson’s “This Book is Overdue” (ht ahniwa).

Here’s an early reference to the idea, from one of my favorite documents on libraries, the 1852 Report of the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston:

If we had no free schools, we should not be a community without education. Large numbers of children would be educated at private schools at the expense of parents able to afford it, and considerable numbers in narrow circumstances would, by the aid of the affluent and liberal, obtain the same advantages. We all feel however that such a state of things would be a poor substitute for our system of public schools, of which it is the best feature that it is a public provision for all; affording equal advantages to poor and rich; furnishing at the public expense an education so good, as to make it an object with all classes to send their children to the public schools.

Why should not this prosperous and liberal city extend some reasonable amount of aid to the foundation and support of a noble public library, to which the young people of both sexes, when they leave the schools, can resort for those works which pertain to general culture, or which are needful for research into any branch of useful knowledge? At present, if the young machinist, engineer, architect, chemist, engraver, painter, instrument-maker, musician (or student of any branch of science or literature,) wishes to consult a valuable and especially a rare and costly work, he must buy it, often import it at an expense he can ill afford, or he must be indebted for its use to the liberality of private corporations or individuals. The trustees submit, that all the reasons which exist for furnishing the means of elementary education, at the public expense, apply in an equal degree to a reasonable provision to aid and encourage the acquisition of the knowledge required to complete a preparation for active life or to perform its duties.

The first chapter of Johnson’s book is available at docstoc, and includes this passage (emphasis mine):

“The wolf is always at the door.” In tight economic times, with libraries sliding further and further down the list of priorities, we risk the loss of their ideals, intelligence, and knowledge, not to mention their commitment to access for all— librarians consider free access to information the foundation of democracy, and they’re right. Librarians are essential players in the information revolution because they level that field. They enable those without money or education to read and learn the same things as the billionaire and the Ph.D. In prosperous libraries, they loan out laptops; in strapped ones, they dole out half hours of computer time. They are the little “d” democrats of the computer age who keep the rest of us wired.

And, in an interview on Salon, she makes a similar, somewhat pointed argument along the same lines:

At a library you’re not assaulted by loaded or manipulated messages. I like to go to the Apple Store and work on projects with the geniuses there, but I also walk out with Apple merchandise. They’re teaching me, but they’re not teaching me about Windows. You have to be on guard everywhere in this culture; all information is loaded. But it’s not as if things aren’t being bought at the library. Books, materials, access to the databases all cost money, and librarians make choices. But they don’t turn around and sell us things. And if you ask a reference librarian which washing machine is the best buy, he or she will be as neutral as Consumers Digest. The library is a great place to go to sort out wild political claims. Verifiable information — the truth — is their standard.

Information is powerful, expensive and important. We’ve always known that information is important in a participatory form of government, it just seems lately we’ve been convinced that the explosion of information has limited the role of libraries.

For me, the best role for libraries and librarians is to engage as much as possible in the explosion of information because ensuring clarity, accuracy and access is so important.


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