Public Library

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Stewart Dutfield
Marist College
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

Obstacles to diversity of ideas and freedom of thought are obstacles to human development, whether in wealthy countries, rich in Internet connections, or in rural regions of Peru short of roads and electricity. Not all people have access to information and ideas from which they might benefit, and the proliferation of ideas does not guarantee that people will encounter them. Information does not always want to be free.


Public libraries have a history of successful struggle against the obstacles to the access to information and ideas. Among the findings of a recent research report in the US, they remain trusted and valued by the public, even though funding is becoming increasingly difficult. Public libraries are increasingly becoming a community space; while demand for traditional library services remains strong, public libraries are widely perceived as offering solutions to community problems and they have the potential to do more in future (Public Agenda, 2006).


More than 150 years ago, public libraries started to provide people with information and knowledge that would otherwise have been out of reach. Through a publicly-funded lender, ordinary people such as Samuel Johnson’s “common reader” could discover more and better books. At a library open to all, any ambitious working-class youth could seek self-improvement; Andrew Carnegie, future benefactor of public libraries around the world, educated himself as a young immigrant only through the kindness of the owner of a private library.

Broad public support for the sober and egalitarian institution of the public library allows citizens to encounter difficult, provocative and unpopular ideas. Public libraries embody both the characteristics of their communities and the principles of intellectual freedom. More of one may lead to less of the other. The challenge of liberating libraries is to benefit from the justified pride that communities take in their public libraries while encouraging greater efforts toward intellectual freedom.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the right of intellectual freedom: “to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This freedom of opinion and expression for all citizens underlies a society’s capacity to recognize and realize new possibilities. Civic participation requires access to information and life-long education. Prosperity in a free society depends upon the creativity which comes from diverse and challenging ideas. Democracy's survival over time calls for adaptability and critical thought in the face of change.

Through professional associations such as the American Libraries Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), librarians advocate the principles of intellectual freedom. The pressures that they experience tell us about the obstacles to these principles. Among these obstacles are money, location, coercion, private interests, lack of privacy, and pressure toward conformity.

Public libraries provide services regardless of the ability to pay; they serve everyone equally, including those for whom money would otherwise present an obstacle. Though the public library may enjoy broad public approval, funding for this free and open source of information is seldom easily come by.

Public libraries provide services regardless of location. Whether in inner cities or remote rural outposts, they reach people who might otherwise not encounter the information and ideas that libraries offer.

Public libraries provide services regardless of coercion and censorship. They exist to bring people and ideas together, not to separate them. Public libraries operate at arm’s length from their sponsors, whether government, taxpayers, volunteer fundraisers (such as Friends groups) or private donors. Despite this, they often struggle with the restriction of information by governments, by self-censorship among librarians, and by those who seek to impose their standards or tastes on others.

Public libraries provide services independently of private interests. While respecting intellectual property, public libraries give priority to their patrons over commercial concerns, advocates of particular views, and any other interests which may distort the free flow of information and ideas.

Public libraries protect the privacy of their patrons. They encourage people to access information and ideas by maintaining the confidentiality of what they look for, look at, and communicate.

Public libraries resist pressures toward conformity which arise even where the diversity of information and ideas is growing. They take pride in providing ideas and information which are “unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority” (American Library Association, 2004).

As an “information commons” (Kranich, 2004, p. 281), the public library provides a forum for information and ideas, it offers new ways to access information, and it recognizes freedom of opinion and expression as the basis of democratic society. Though its strategies and services go beyond the printed word and beyond the walls of the library building, the public library also offers those who love “that magical hinged object, the book” (Holroyd, 1999, p. 143) a refuge from the possibly less subversive distractions of technology and contemporary media.

Public libraries develop access to information in many ways. Individual libraries provide computer access and guidance to patrons, including those who have no other means of using the Internet. Regional aggregation of library catalogs and databases offers patrons a collection much richer than any one library could maintain. Libraries are active in making government information more available, and they work to influence legislation to prevent intellectual property rights from adding new obstacles to access.

Public libraries have long worked to develop skills, most often needed by their underserved constituents, in language, literacy, and technology. As more information of increasingly variable quality becomes available, it becomes more and more necessary to evaluate its integrity and independence. With their staff and their patrons, public libraries are beginning to cultivate information literacy: the skills necessary to find, use, and critically evaluate information from many sources.

Side by side with public libraries' broad mission for an informed and active citizenry is a focus on the local community and civic dialog. The typical public library offers a public gathering space, available to all regardless of opinion or creed. It may provide a network connection to the local school so that youngsters can use library computers to perform their homework assignments. It may maintain an archive of local history and records, and care for cultural artifacts (such as paintings, for example) of local significance. This local focus can lead to collaborations with other local stakeholders; for example, in the case of a major local environmental issue such as industrial river pollution, the library may work with a government agency to host community meetings and include copies of the agency’s reports in a collection of documents related to the issue.

Public libraries have a special mission to serve their underserved or “information poor” (Kranich, 2004, p. 287) constituents. Groups such as urban minorities and rural communities have special difficulty in surmounting the obstacles to accessing and using information and ideas. In some parts of the world, such as the rural north of Peru served by the Rural Library Network (Medcalf, 1999), library services develop literacy through books and storytelling. In situations such as this, public libraries transport books on foot or by pack animal—camels in Kenya, donkeys in Zimbabwe.

The public library is an established institution which offers a model for building new institutions and services. It enjoys broad public respect and support, and promotes principles central to democracy and development: (a) intellectual freedom, (b) access to information and to ideas both fashionable and unfashionable, and (c) serving the needs of the underrepresented. If the Navajo call the library a “house of papers,” it can be much more; through new technologies, new partnerships, and new services it offers what Josh Cohen, director of the Mid-Hudson Library System (, calls “one of the cornerstones of democracy and one of the building blocks of a strong community.”


To create access to information, civic participation, and life-long education, use what public libraries already offer and work with them to implement new services. Support public libraries by volunteering, forming Friends groups, and establishing collaboration with other community institutions. Where there is no library, use the power of books to build public support. Wherever there is a public library, work with it to further the principles of intellectual freedom for all.

Digital Divide
Research for Action
Community Action
Case Studies
Verbiage for pattern card: 

Obstacles to diversity of ideas and freedom of thought are obstacles to human development, whether in wealthy countries, rich in Internet connections, or in rural regions, lacking roads and electricity. The Public Library enjoys broad respect and support, promotes democratic principles including intellectual freedom and access to popular and unpopular information ideas, and serves the needs of the under represented.

Pattern status: 
Pattern annotations: 

Public Libraries in Colombia

Excellent discussion of public libraries in Colombia by Ricardo Gomez. Early in 2010, a national law was passed that strengthened public libraries there. There are claims that a renewed focus on public libraries has cut down on violence.

Pattern ID: 
Linked Nodes: