Public libraries and the access to unfiltered information they provide have been one of the pillars of American democracy – as our founding fathers recognized. Benjamin Franklin established our first public library in 1731. James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” And John Adams wrote, “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”
A few years ago I corresponded with a friend’s daughter who was studying in China. I asked her to go to the library and look up an American who had helped survey Chinese claims in the nineteenth century. Her response surprised me. She wrote: “I have asked all my friends here, and their families . . . the Chinese government keeps all the archives restricted. There aren’t even any public libraries . . . history is a secret and it belongs to the government.”
Why are libraries important? Without them, we can be manipulated by whoever controls our information. And a vigorous library not only helps us educate ourselves, it attracts new businesses, as Virginia Beach has shown with their pride in and care of their stellar system.
Yet libraries, like liberty itself, must be fought for anew with each generation. The Shore’s library system has been underfunded for decades. And the neglect continues, with continuing consequences for our literacy rates, mutual prosperity, and attractiveness to outside investment.
What can we do when our elected bodies will not act? First, join your Friends group. Many of the things that make our local libraries so exciting — The summer story hours, special collections, book purchase endowments, and other special events and collections – are funded by volunteer groups called Friends of the Libraries. All four libraries on the Shore have active Friends groups with modest dues and exciting programs. Stop in to your local branch, ask for a form, and sign up. Second, join me in donating to the Capital Campaign. You can donate on line at www.shorelibrary.com or stop by the office in Four Corners, usually open from 10-3, or call 787-2500. Checks can be mailed to ESPL Foundation, P.O. Box 554, Accomac, VA 23301. Checks should be made out to Eastern Shore Public Library Foundation and all donations are tax deductible.