Check out our public libraries—bastions of democracy and the free flow of information

June 2024

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As we get closer to the November presidential election and down-ballot voting for state, regional, local candidates, and policy referenda, we know we’re being challenged to get the vital information we need to make mindful decisions.  And, with all the constant distress about prevalent dis/mis-information, it’s easy to become cynical and discouraged.  We may feel it’s best to stay away from news broadcasts.  We could possibly become increasingly vulnerable to compelling social media commentary that may be tainted by purposeful propaganda to deepen our already disheartened views about our agency to make a difference via our votes and our voices, or that pits us against others who would otherwise be our friends and allies.  This is not a good time for such inaction, despair and division!

In my own recent efforts to offer some inspiring and informative commentary via TWAICB social media posts, I learned about yet another challenge to the free flow of truthful information, as well as a way to address this. It is one that has been part of all our lives for the last 190 years.

On March 18th, I read an opinion essay in the New York Times by Mara Gay titled, “In a Deep Red State, This Activist Won’t Give Up.” The article describes the continued activism of 77 year old Beverly Gadson-Birch, who continues to work to ensure people can and do vote in Charleston, SC.  We hoped to share this article as part of TWAICB’s social media posts that showcase inspiring figures who demonstrate ways to take positive action to further the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  However, though I’m a New York Times subscriber, we could not share a link to this article so that it could be read by anyone, regardless of their subscription status.  This is due to paywalls constructed by many publishers to help safeguard their revenues—a totally understandable concern—yet a challenge to supporting the widespread dissemination of information that can help inform the public.

illustration of wall with a locked door

After discussing this issue with Jazzmin Gota, who oversees TWAICB’s website and social media postings, she forwarded me an article from The Atlantic titled “Democracy Dies Behind Paywalls,” by Richard Stengel.  Because I wasn’t a subscriber, and The Atlantic also has a paywall, I could not read the article!

However, there is a direct way to freely obtain both of these articles as well as any others you might seek, by being a member of your public library!  Though I’ve always valued libraries, I had not actively used mine.  I recently re-activated my free membership and have subsequently retrieved both of these articles.

illustration of wall with a locked door

In this National Endowment for the Humanities article titled “The Complicated Role of the Modern Public Library,” the author Jennifer Howard explains the invaluable role libraries play in providing both community connection and access to information—physical and digital—noting in her introductory statements:

The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data. In a country riven by racial, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divides, libraries still welcome everyone.

The Digital Public Library of America offers this in-depth history of the public library in America as great perspective on what spurred the establishment of libraries and what libraries contribute to our communities.

In reading more about the valuable role of public libraries, past and present, I came across this enlightening “Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report Jan. 10, 1989,” published by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association.  Though published in 1989, the current relevance of the Report is striking, especially naming what seems crucially vital for all of us to have: Information Literacy.

How our country deals with the realities of the Information Age will have enormous impact on our democratic way of life and on our nation’s ability to compete internationally. Within America’s information society, there also exists the potential of addressing many long-standing social and economic inequities. To reap such benefits, people—as individuals and as a nation—must be information literate. To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.

As an antidote to the sense of overwhelm about what to do to address the challenges of mis/dis-information and combative social media communications, we recommend strengthening our own information literacy, and taking advantage of what our public libraries can do in support of this.  The following are some possible guide questions to consider the information we need to be prepared to vote in the November election, and how to take action towards this acquisition:

  1. What issues are most important to me/us in deciding the best candidates for local, state or national office?(For example, locally: how to address homelessness; statewide: how to enhance access to public transportation; nationally: how to deal with climate change?)
  2. What information do I need to know about a candidate’s past and current positions on these issues?
  3. What are possible objective sources of this information?
  4. How could my local library help me in researching and obtaining these answers?

Consider connecting with others to identify common issues of concern and how to obtain needed information to address these concerns.  Utilize some of our Resources along the way.  We also offer this helpful guide for using your public library.

We have our work cut out for us to stay awake, courageous and engaged amid so much noise and politicizing that stokes discouragement and disconnection.  I hope you’ll take heart from the information offered here, as well as from the following wisdom from Barack Obama a colleague recently shared with me:

Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.

With appreciation and best regards,

Sandy Sohcot, Director

Featured Resources

From our recent conversation with Project Censored, we’re sharing some resources on critical media literacy and the importance of access to accurate information. Here are some open-access, non-paywalled resources!

Free People Read Freely
Growing resistance to book banning signals diminished public support for censorship

Read at Project Censored

4 Questions at a Time with Project Censored
The World As It Could Be, 4 Questions at a Time conversation about human rights, critical media literacy, and the importance of access to information and educational resources
Watch at the TWAICB YouTube Channel