Ensuring that the electorate gets the information it needs to vote is part of the ancient founding mission of U.S. public libraries.
I have quoted the first and best articulation of that 1852 mission statement hundreds of times since I first saw it as a student in the School of Library Science at Simmons College. It goes like this:
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 constantly required to decide, and do decide, either ignorantly or wisely.
Today, in the current toxic political environment in America, that relatively straightforward segment of the library mission turns out to be more complex and dangerous than ever.
There are new pernicious state laws that border on censorship. They present the prohibition in many ways, but the basic message is that publicly funded entities, including libraries, are forbidden to dispense information on issues on the ballot or any part of the election campaign. Librarians I know have been called before their state election commission to explain why they have “violated” these laws.
More disturbing is the current environment in many communities, especially those in which citizens tend to be mostly on the same side of the political or ideological divide. When a library offers balanced information from both poles on local or national issues, reaction from either side can be unpleasant, even hostile, to the library and to library support. It is even worse when the citizens are part of the oldest American movement, the one that asserts that all government is evil—even public agencies such as the library. It is a courageous librarian who delivers facts that offer an opposing view to that one.
In this election year, public libraries are being attacked. Robocalls to voters in Illinois’s Plainfield Public Library District were financed by Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative political action group founded by David Koch and contributed to by him and his brother Charles, co-owners of Koch Industries. The calls exaggerated the cost to the average homeowner of the $39 million bonds on the ballot for a new library building.
The library valiantly responded, “Here at the Library, helping people access accurate information is a critical part of what we do. For that reason, the planning process for the referenda included 22 public meetings over eight months, a telephone survey, and online feedback surveys. Every step of the process was documented on the Building & Expansion Planning web page, with supporting documentation available.” The library blog posts addressed all the questions about the bonds as well as the sources of misinformation, yet the robocalls continued, and the bond measure was defeated.
To those who have decided not to get too close to election issues and controversies, I understand, and in your situation I might make the same choice. I only wish the conditions and forces that prevent a library from informing the electorate didn’t exist. In America today, however, anyone who offers data that runs contrary to the views of voters energized by the current rhetoric of this campaign has to face the probability that the information will be challenged. Considering the damage to the library that it can cause, it will take a brave librarian to proceed.
To those who do choose to go forth, take strength from knowing that nearly two centuries of our professional history support your actions. You are carrying out the mission libraries were founded to accomplish.