Information as currency, democracy, and public libraries

Date11 June 2018
Published date11 June 2018
AuthorChristine Stilwell
Information as currency,
democracy, and public libraries
Christine Stilwell
Department of Information Studies,
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to endorse the notion that information is the currency of democracy
and explore the question of the public librarys role in promoting democracy through the provision of access
to information.
Design/methodology/approach A review of the literature and a case study are used.
Findings From the early days of the public library, there has been a certain democratic paternalism in
librariansviews on public libraries, and ambivalence about the extent to which these libraries have provided
information to the whole population. Despite this finding, the paper explores the public librarys role in
providing information; the currency of information. Public libraries can contribute to the renewal of a
democratic public sphere by providing free and ready access to knowledge and information, as well as safe
and trusted social spaces for the exchange of ideas, creativity, and decision making.
Originality/value The paper examines material from the dawn of the public library to current concerns
about the role of these libraries in providing access to information, in revitalising citizenship and fostering
democracy. It draws on the well-known example of the birth of democracy in South Africa and on discussions
of public library neutrality and activism in contemporary France, describing limits on the achievements of
libraries in these countries in the context of some current, promising examples from the USA, Britain,
Denmark, and Australia.
Keywords South Africa, France, Democracy, Information, Public libraries, Neutrality
Paper type Research paper
To be prevented from participation in the political life of the community is a major deprivation
(Sen, 1999, p. 10).
1. Introduction
The notion that Information is the currency of democracyis attributed to Thomas
Jefferson, the principal author of the US Declaration of Independence. Drafted in 1776, it is
regarded as the first formal statement by a nations people of their democratic right to
choose their government. It has been influential beyond the USA, notably during the French
Revolution (Declaration of Independence, 2009).
During the Second World War when the future of democracy was in jeopardy,
Franklin D. Roosevelt referredto the role of libraries in democracy:Libraries are directly and
immediatelyinvolved in the conflict which dividesour world, [] because they areessential to
the functioning of a democratic society[](cited by Ditzion, 1947, p. v). The exercise of
democratic rights, however, is based on certain preconditions such as having educated
citizens, and access to the information which is needed to inform and exercise such rights.
Access to information was given a boost in the 1850s with the birth of the public library
movement in the USA and elsewhere. The rates-based tax-supported public library became
the commonly accepted model and was linked to the movement for universal schooling
(McCook, 2001). In 1949, Shera (1949, p. vi), a notable proponent of the democratising
function of the public library, summed up this relationship: The modern public library in
large measure represents the need of democracy for an enlightened electorate, and its
history records its adaptation to changing social requirements. Ditzion (1947) documented
the role of public libraries regarding education and democracy in education after formal
schooling. Libraries provided a peoples universityand a wholesome capable citizenry
Library Management
Vol. 39 No. 5, 2018
pp. 295-306
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/LM-08-2017-0078
Received 21 August 2017
Revised 21 August 2017
Accepted 7 October 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
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