Libraries in the USA are at Mission Critical

There is not such a cra­dle of democ­ra­cy upon the earth as the Free Pub­lic Library, this repub­lic of let­ters, where nei­ther rank, office, nor wealth receives the slight­est con­sid­er­a­tion.” —Andrew Carnegie

Hamel Public Library, Minnesota
Hamel Pub­lic Library, Minnesota

Libraries in the USA are at mis­sion crit­i­cal. Those who went before us worked hard to estab­lish free pub­lic libraries so we could have access to what we need to know. How can we let their lega­cy erode?

We’ve already seen our pub­lic school libraries dam­aged by bud­get short­falls in which libraries are deemed non-essen­tial and degreed librar­i­ans are con­sid­ered eas­i­ly replaced by a volunteer.

Pub­lic libraries have suf­fered as well via con­sol­i­da­tion, replaced by pick-up-your-book kiosks, and out­right closure.

For read­ers, it is under­stood how vital libraries are as a free source of edu­ca­tion, essen­tial ser­vices, and enter­tain­ment that might oth­er­wise be too expen­sive for fam­i­lies and indi­vid­u­als. Beyond books, pub­lic libraries offer free pro­gram­ming in edu­ca­tion, craft­ing, music and dance, cit­i­zen­ry, and busi­ness. Some libraries have become a place to check out sel­dom-need­ed but impor­tant items like fish­ing rods, elec­tric drills, sewing machines, and gar­den­ing tools.

gardening tools library

Read­ing is still at the heart of the library. The abil­i­ty to learn, whether by fic­tion or non­fic­tion, and the priv­i­lege of ask­ing a librar­i­an who can help you find what you need and what you don’t yet know that you need — that is a library. No com­put­er algo­rithm, no mat­ter how well-mean­ing, can take a librarian’s place.

Many of us take our pub­lic library for grant­ed. We walk a few blocks, ride our bikes, dri­ve a few miles or 30 miles to check out books and mag­a­zines. We can call the staff on the phone to make sure they know what we’re look­ing for and have it. If they don’t have it, they can order it from a library far, far away. This is one of the most reli­able ser­vices of being an Amer­i­can citizen.

This access to infor­ma­tion and resources was hard-won. The gen­er­a­tions before us rec­og­nized how vital books and read­ing are to a healthy, cit­i­zen-engaged country.

Down Cut Shin CreekIn Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librar­i­ans of Ken­tucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Can­nel­la Schmitzer (Harp­er Collins, 2001), we learn the riv­et­ing true sto­ry of women, pri­mar­i­ly, who were hired by the Work Projects Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA) in 1935, dur­ing the height of the Depres­sion, to ride hors­es or pack mules to the often inac­ces­si­ble small com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­u­als of east­ern Ken­tucky. Even­tu­al­ly these librar­i­ans would serve more 100,000 peo­ple in 30 coun­ties as part of the Pack Horse Library Project. It’s an inspir­ing book. Read­ing the account of how impor­tant these librar­i­ans were because they knew their com­mu­ni­ties, their read­ers’ tastes, and felt a sense of duty … it’s eas­i­er to under­stand why libraries have been so vital in America.

A con­gress­man from Ken­tucky, Carl D. Perkins, spon­sored the Library Ser­vices Act in 1956 “that made the first fed­er­al appro­pri­a­tions for library ser­vice.” More than like­ly, he was influ­enced by a Pack Horse Librar­i­an while he taught in rur­al Kentucky.

That Book WomanFor a pic­ture book about the Pack Horse Librar­i­ans, read Heather Henson’s That Book Woman, illus­trat­ed by David Small (Atheneum, 2008). Writ­ten by a Ken­tucky native, this sto­ry of Cal, liv­ing high in the Appalachi­an hills, depicts a young boy who wants noth­ing to do with read­ing until he real­izes the extra­or­di­nary lengths his Pack Horse Librar­i­an is achiev­ing to bring him books.

Books in a BoxIn north­ern climes, Stu­art Stotts wrote the mar­velous Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Trav­el­ing Libraries of Wis­con­sin (Big Val­ley Press, 2005). Lutie Stearns grew up near Mil­wau­kee, read­ing all the time. She is drawn to library ser­vice where, thank­ful­ly, she has big ideas. She teams up with Frank Hutchins (anoth­er big idea per­son, he start­ed the Wis­con­sin State For­est Depart­ment, and intro­duced East­er Seals to the Anti-Tuber­cu­lo­sis Asso­ci­a­tion) to cre­ate trav­el­ing libraries.

Melvil Dewey (he of the Dewey Dec­i­mal Sys­tem) intro­duced pub­licly-fund­ed trav­el­ing libraries in New York State in 1893. (The first trav­el­ing libraries were like­ly those in Scot­land and Wales in the ear­ly 1800s, but they were part of a school­ing system.)

The next year, Lutie and Frank peti­tioned lum­ber baron and Wis­con­sin state sen­a­tor James Stout to fund trav­el­ing libraries in Dunn Coun­ty. They want­ed him to intro­duce a bill in the leg­is­la­ture to fun the Wis­con­sin Free Library Com­mis­sion. You must read this book for the engross­ing expe­ri­ences Lutie encoun­tered as she tried to estab­lish trav­el­ing libraries, books in a box, around the state in post offices and stores.

Lat­er, Lutie would help cit­i­zens apply for funds from Andrew Carnegie to con­struct a library. These Carnegie libraries, some of which are still in use, brought edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment to gen­er­a­tions of cit­i­zens, tax­pay­er sup­port­ed but oth­er­wise free, through­out the Unit­ed States. Lutie Stearns could cel­e­brate the growth of books-in-a-box to full-fledged libraries through her per­sis­tent efforts and those of Frank Hutchins.

Dunn County
Demo­c­rat Print­ing Com­pa­ny — (1897) Free Trav­el­ing Libraries in Wis­con­sin: The Sto­ry of Their Growth, Pur­pos­es, and Devel­op­ment; with Accounts of a Few Kin­dred Movements

The desire to have a good influ­ence and a decent place to go, instead of the many saloons and dance halls, led me to vis­it one com­mu­ni­ty no less than twelve times before I could get the town pres­i­dent, also own­er of a dance hall, to appoint a library board.” (Lutie Stearns, Books in a Box, pg 49)

Twelve times? That’s determination.

Can we do less?


The ear­li­est libraries-on-wheels looked way cool­er than today’s book­mo­biles,” by Rose Eveleth,

Trav­el­ing libraries,” by Lar­ry T. Nix, Library His­to­ry Buff

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments