Democracy and libraries: symbol or symbiosis?

Date11 June 2018
Publication Date11 June 2018
AuthorAlex Byrne
SubjectLibrary & information science,Librarianship/library management,HR in libraries,Library strategy,Library promotion
Democracy and libraries: symbol
or symbiosis?
Alex Byrne
Sydney, Australia
Purpose Libraries are frequently claimed to be essential to the functioning of a democratic society and to
be symbols of intellectual freedom. The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between libraries,
public libraries in particular, and democracy.
Design/methodology/approach Data from the Democracy Index produced by the Economist Intelligence
Unit and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions World Library Map are
analysed to test the claimed symbiotic relationship between libraries and democracy.
Findings The findings confirm that there is an identifiable symbiotic relationship between libraries and
democracy as claimed, at least for public libraries, and considers some implications of that finding.
Originality/value First analysis of worldwide data to test this hypothesis.
Keywords Management, Freedom, Democracy, Library systems and democracy, Library, Public libraries
Paper type Research paper
Libraries [] are essential to the functioning of a democratic society [] and libraries are the great
symbols of the freedom of the mind (Franklin D. Roosevelt in Ditzion, 1957, p. v).
Roosevelts oft quoted statement shapes many claims of the importance of libraries, and
especially free public libraries, to the health of democracies. To take one definitive example,
Kranich (2001, p. vi) claims that there is a symbiotic relationship between libraries and
democracy and that libraries are uniquely democratic institutions. This claim deserves
examination. If it exists, what is the symbiotic relationshipbetween libraries and democracy?
And what is uniquely democraticabout libraries? Further, do these characteristics, if
confirmed, apply to all types of libraries or are they peculiar to certain types? And, if and where
these characteristics apply, what are the implications for the lib raries?
When Rooseveltsvaunted quotation is expressed in the commonform given above, some
phrases in the original statement have been omitted for the sake of succinctness. Roosevelt
also noted that the defence of freedom for which, as he said, the USA and its allies were
fighting in the SecondWorld War, extends to the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the
mind, and even the survival of culture. These phrases position the roleof libraries on both a
symbolic plane as marks of democratic society and on a utilitarian plane as instruments to
support the operation of democracy, scholarship, intellectual freedom, and cultural survival.
During the same conflict, H.V. EEvatt, Australias wartime Minister for External Affairs
and Attorney-General who was also the President of the Trustees of the Public Library of
New South Wales, made similar assertions. At the opening of the recently completed and
magnificent Public Library of New South Wales building on 24 November 1943, he stated
(Tink, 2014):
Hitler had destroyed books. We went on building [the Public Library] so that the books should
remain our eternal heritage. Our state thus showed its special faith in the very freedom which our
enemies openly suppressed.
Great public libraries are essential to freedom and to free men. They must always be free. Free to
collect, to house, to make available to all, books by men and women of every shade of opinion.
And so, there is no religion, no philosophy, no political system, no science, no useful art,
no profession, no mechanism of production or distribution, no proposal for social well-being,
which cannot be freely studied in this public library.
Library Management
Vol. 39 No. 5, 2018
pp. 284-294
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/LM-09-2017-0088
Received 5 September 2017
Revised 5 September 2017
Accepted 7 October 2017
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