As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we hope it means something more than fireworks and picnics. It's important that we remember the Declaration of Independence, because we like to think our country stands for something more than just the place where we live. We need to approach that thought with humility, because the USA does not have a preeminence on patriotism, nor on taking care of our own, nor on freedom.
What we do have is our own story. And the Declaration is a powerful part of that story. Those great words "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The genius of the Declaration was to state a basic philosophy of freedom, and it was the genius of the Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution to enumerate many of these rights and put them into the language of law.
Freedom is a fundamental quality of the American public library: freedom of speech, freedom to read, freedom to learn, freedom to decide and think for oneself. Our nation's founders understood this idea, and counted on it. Jefferson said “A democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry.” And James Madison, defender of the Bill of Rights, said “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
So as we think about our national story from July 4, 1776 until today, we should be thankful for all of those who believed in and fought for this country and its best hopes. I'm thankful for many veterans and for librarians who are veterans. I'm concerned for our troops who are fighting today.
But in thinking about our story, I know the freedom to speak requires the freedom to hear, and the freedom to write requires the freedom to read. Part of our national story is the story of librarians who put it on the line to preserve our freedom:
- Trina Magi, who organized librarians in Vermont to work against the USA PATRIOT Act.
- Jerilynn Adams Williams, who fought removal books from public libraries in Montgomery County, Texas
- Ruth Brown, who in 1950 lost her job in Bartlesville, OK for subscribing "subversive" publications, including The Nation, The New Republic, Negro Digest and Consumer Reports
- Jeanne Layton, fired from the the Davis County library in 1979 for refusing to remove Don DeLillo's novel, Americana
- Joan Airoldi, of the Whatcom County Library System in Washington, who successfully quashed an FBI subpoena that was too far-reaching and neglected patron rights, saying "Libraries are a haven where people should be able to seek whatever information they want to pursue without any threat of government intervention."
- Forrest Spaulding of the Des Moines Public Library, who crafted the first Library Bill of Rights in 1938
- The leaders of the American Library Association who framed the Freedom to Read statement during the difficult times of McCarthyism.