Sustaining the Public Sphere in Libraries

Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida. From her monograph Introduction to Public Librarianship. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2004.

The importance of the public library as a commons, listed as one of the service responses in New Planning for Results (Nelson), will grow in the years to come. The commons role is part of the larger metaphor of the "public sphere" in democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere has been developed using the work of philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has described the significance of people connecting ideas through broad discussion: "Reaching mutual understanding through discourse indeed guarantees that issues, reasons, and information are handled reasonably, but such understanding still depends on contexts characterized by a capacity for learning, both at the cultural and the personal level" (1996: 324-325). A vibrant public sphere provides an opportunity for the discourse that will enliven democracy. Public librarians who recognize the importance of sustaining the public sphere will respond to their community's desire for a place to address critical issues in their lives.

The national library leadership has focused on the importance of the commons function in libraries. American Library Association past president, Nancy Kranich (2003) notes that, "information, too, is a common asset that is essential to advancing teaching, learning, and civic participation, and also encourages the development of civil society. When people are better informed, they are more likely to deliberate about policies that affect their lives and commons concerns. Most importantly, citizens need a commons where they can speak freely, discern different perspectives, share similar interests and concerns." The role of public library collection development so that librarians ensure that materials are available to meet the needs and interests of all segments of their communities continues to be an important way that the public sphere can be enhanced (Budd and Wyatt).

However, real threats to the availability of information for public discourse exist. In Dismantling the Public Sphere, Buschman (2003) provides a critique of librarianship in light of increasing commercialization of information and the broad reach of authoritarian populism. To assure continued availability of the materials for meaningful discussion and deliberation about important issues also requires a free press and free access to media. As McChesney and Nichols (2002) argue, this requires awareness of the limitations of the mass media resulting from corporate voices. Librarians must be aware of the complex factors that delimit what is available and work to extend collection development beyond the usual sources.

Public librarians also seek to protect readers from intrusions allowed by the USA PATRIOT Act and have drawn criticism from the government for doing so. The USA PATRIOT Act was passed after the terrorist acts on September 11, 2001 with almost no debate. The ACLU states, "Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect. For example, without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records…and can prevent anyone from telling you it was done."

The American Library Association resolution on the USA PATRIOT Act notes, "The American Library Association (ALA) opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry…ALA considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users." (Lichtblau, American Library Association). Most state library associations have also passed resolutions regarding the threat of the USA PATRIOT Act to the democratic process.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is another case in which librarians have worked to protect public access to information-specifically unfiltered Internet access in public libraries. CIPA requires that libraries receiving e-rate funds must filter out material that is obscene or harmful to minors. The Supreme Court declared CIPA constitutional on June 23, 2003. However, the constitutionality was based on libraries' ability to disable filtering software. This case continues to be one that will engage public librarians through the decade (Sobel, 2003). The dilemma is noted by Jaeger and McClure (2004):

CIPA represents the intersection of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and the desire of the government to protect children from harm. The potential legal challenges created by the application of CIPA result from the fact that these two abstract notions, when combined in a community space, are not always mutually compatible or feasible.

Librarians stand together across the United States as defenders of the people's right to know. The legal context must be monitored closely by all who work in and oversee policy implementation for public libraries.

Public librarians also stimulate community discussion on issues through support of events like the National Issues Forum, reading discussion programs, such as, "A Response to September 11," and reading viewing programs, such as, "The Sixties: Decade of Crisis and Change" (American Library Association, Public Programs Office, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Video Resources). Public libraries activate the public sphere through support of life-long learning and discussion programs and strengthen the public's desire for opportunities to address issues that are salient to the community.

Taken together, the provision of a commons, materials in all formats to support exploration of important issues, and offering opportunity for communities to come together are important public library contributions to a rich public sphere. If discourse becomes more democratic through consensus building, it is partly because authentic discourse enables people to move from personal opinions to informed ideas (McCook, 2001).


American Civil Liberties Union. Keep America Safe and Free. c=207

American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. Intellectual Freedom Manual, 6th edition (Chicago: American Library Association, 2002). For resolutions and resources regarding the USAPATRIOT Act see

Budd, John M. and Cynthia Wyatt. "Do You Have Any Books On-An Examination of Public Library Holdings." Public Libraries 41 (March/April 2002): 107-112.

Buschman, John E. Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

First Amendment Center.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 1996.

Jaeger, Paul T. and Charles R. McClure "Potential Legal Challenges to the Application of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in Public Libraries: Strategies and Issues." First Monday 9 (February 2004).

Kranich, Nancy. "Staking a Claim in the Information Commons." Knowledge Quest 31 (March/April, 2003): 22-25.

Lichtblau, Eric. "Ashcroft Mocks Librarians and Others Who Oppose Parts of Counterterrorism Law." New York Times (September 16, 2003. Section A, p. 23.)

McChesney, Robert and John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.

McCook, Kathleen de la Peña. "Authentic Discourse as a Means of Connection Between Public Library Service Responses and Community Building Initiatives." Reference and User Services Quarterly 40 (Winter 2001): 127-133.

McCook, Kathleen de la Peña. A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building. Chicago: ALA editions, 2000.

McCook, Kathleen de la Peña. Rocks in the Whirlpool: The American Library Association and Equity of Access. 2002. ERIC. ED 462981.

National Issues Forum

National Video Resources

Nelson, Sandra. The New Planning for Results: A Streamlined Approach. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.

Oldenburg, Ray. Celebrating the Third Place. Avalon, 2000.

Sobel, David. L. "Net Filters and Libraries." November 2003. First Amendment Center.

Rocks in the Whirlpool


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