Libraries, Democracy, and the First Amendment

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We’re all familiar with the first amendment. We’re often reminded of its existence whenever someone spouts off an unpopular statement or when a government official tries to censor someone or something.

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So what’s really going on here? The first amendment protects something bigger and far grander than its individual parts: intellectual liberty. It protects our freedom to have, express, and display our thoughts and ideas openly in front of our fellow citizens.

This is at the very heart of American democracy. It’s the strength and power behind the American dream.

This is also where public and public university libraries fit into our democracy.

Libraries want the members of their communities to have equal access to the information needed to be able to develop their own thoughts and ideas and equal access to the resources needed to share them.

What does this mean? To be equal? Income and education (or lack thereof) are driving forces that hold people back and prevent their voices from being heard.

These Americans have a smaller voice. They have less protection and rights under the first amendment than those with a higher education and income.

The role of libraries is to even out this disparity. They do this by providing three things:

  1. Equal access to other people’s ideas through free resources and staff to help them find what they need.
  2. Equal ability to analyze and validate information so they can strengthen their own arguments through staff and resources (Is the information valid? A Fact? An Opinion? Does the argument have supporting evidence?).
  3. Equal platforms to share their ideas through a community gathering place and a gateway to the online world.

Using every resource at their disposal to advocate for and provide equal access to intellectual liberty has been libraries’ biggest challenge and most important mandate since the very start of our nation. This is imperative now more than ever with the digital divide and dwindling funding for public services.

Massive budget cuts like President Trump’s proposed cut of all funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences are nothing short of government suppression and censorship.

I urge everyone to use their voice in support of libraries, democracy, and the first amendment.

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