I return once or twice a year to the first statement of our mission in Upon the Objects to be Attained by the Establishment of a Public Library, the 1852 Report of the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston. Possibly the most important document in the history of the free public library in the United States, the report spells out the justifications for the establishment of such a library in that city. To me the most compelling passage (p. 15) is this one:
For it has been rightly judged that,—under political, social and religious institutions like ours—it is of paramount importance that the means of general information should be so diffused that the largest possible number of persons should be induced to read and understand questions going down to the very foundations of social order, which are constantly presenting themselves, and which we, as a people, are required to decide, and do decide, either ignorantly or wisely.
That founding mandate, so often observed in the breach, is as urgent now as it was when it was first articulated in 1852. Today we face not only a massive inundation of information but also a host of forces trying either to distort, misinterpret, or simply lock up content to gain an advantage in commerce and the marketplace, in political arenas, or in the endless power struggles in world affairs.
In the debates over U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, we have been asked to decide on the use of military force, with only sparse intelligence. In the dissemination of crucial research results, we have seen our copyright and patent laws abused for profit and competitive gain, at great cost to consumers. We have witnessed the use of frightening misinformation and outright mendacity to create unprecedented political stalemates at the national, state, and local levels. We have watched the corruption of some of our broadcast media, often after their acquisition by those seeking a political or commercial advantage. We have even seen attacks on our public libraries because they have tried to present full information on all sides of issues.
And we have watched public opinion become suspicious of the motivation and accuracy of nearly every source of information, every agency of government, and every social institution.
As a society, we created our systems of public education and public libraries to address the need of the people to be informed. We learned, early on, that we can’t rely on the individuals and agencies competing for an elected or a financial edge to provide us with all that we need to know. We realized that only entities owned by and working for all the populace could be trusted to provide full, free access to what we need to know to govern ourselves properly.
The Boston trustees spelled this out in that wonderfully elaborate language of their time. Despite its quaint, dated style, the message resonates with as much clear and compelling force as it did in the 19th century. Soon after it was delivered, the people built the great Boston Public Library and carved the message “Free to all” over its entrance.
In this era in which information and misinformation coexist and compete in all of our most popular channels and messages pile up in our inboxes, a public agency with a mandate to enlighten all the people is more important than ever. That agency must enlist a staff of expert professionals—librarians—to help people sort through the messages and understand how to assess their validity, how to judge, from the source, their biases.
All of this must, of course, be “free to all,” tax-supported so everyone can use it. We’ll have to take a more proactive role in evaluating sources, even before we’re invited to do so, all the more those from governments and other trusted institutions. We’ll have to serve as fact-checkers on every aspect of the public discourse, helping citizens see how interested parties may have corrupted the information they offer. We must bring a new militancy to our efforts to ensure that copyright serves its original purpose, “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” and does not become another tool to commodify information. We’ll need a new, stronger advocacy to convince voters and those whom they elect that they need to support our efforts to fight the forces trying to control and corrupt the flow of information for their own ends.