Libraries and Democracy

Two auspicious events occur in the month of May. The first is graduation, a time of celebration, recognition of hard work, and a launch pad for the rest of our graduates’ lives. The second event is Memorial Day. This past Monday, we honored those who have given their lives in defense of democracy. As I was thinking about both of these events, my mind wandered to the role that libraries serve in a democratic society. I believe the UH Libraries is critical to the mission of the University and to democracy. The Libraries’ mission is to advance student success, knowledge creation and preservation, and globally competitive research. We accomplish this through the creation, discovery, and preservation of knowledge and through the services, programs, and spaces we provide. We are a part of a larger ecosystem of libraries throughout the world with similar missions and collectively, we provide our constituents with the facts they need to make informed choices, decisions, and opinions.

Libraries collect and provide access to a wealth of information of all types – scientific research, government documents, social and cultural information, literature, music, arts and everything in between. We make that information available so that people can learn about anything they desire. Libraries facilitate learning and promote the pursuit of knowledge. Well-informed people are the cornerstone of a democratic society. In a letter to George Herbert Putnam, the eighth and longest-serving Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “I have an unshaken conviction that democracy can never be undermined if we maintain our library resources and a national intelligence capable of utilizing them.”

What specifically does that mean for us at the University of Houston Libraries? It means we make collections accessible that enable our scientists to break new grounds in research. We make sure that we can provide access to government information. Our librarians can help you find the information that keeps our government accountable, and provides a record of how democracy works.

It means we have literature to spark creativity, music that performers can play, business databases for our finance students, and many other informative resources. It also means we have some of the brightest people I know who are collaborating with faculty to embed information literacy and critical thinking skills into their teaching. We want our students to graduate with tools that enable them to think critically.

It means we have archivists who are preserving our history and making it available for present and future scholars. It means we have people who describe this material and make it accessible so that you can discover it. In 2018, it means we employ library professionals who understand digital humanities and data visualization, and who create spaces to serve the learning styles of our students. It means that we create programs and services that facilitate and inspire learning and creativity.

It turns out that it is hard to find one definition of democracy – there are many different ones. I’m going to use the definition found in Cambridge Dictionary which says democracy is “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.” I believe people need knowledge, need to be able to think critically about what they hear and see, and then make informed decisions based upon that knowledge. Through the collections we make available, the services we offer, and the people who offer those services, libraries are an essential part of our democratic society.

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