America's Democratic Spirit in Action

Why libraries matter

| July 2004

Jim Hightower's newest book, Let's Stop Beating Around The Bush, is scheduled for release this month. is running a series of excerpts from the title.

For me, the truest symbol of America's great democratic spirit is not to be found in the formal and imposing edifices of our republic -- the White House, the Capitol building, or the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others. Rather, I look to the much more modest, diverse, dispersed, and welcoming expressions of our nation's egalitarian ideals: our public libraries.

Libraries in particular embody the collective story of a place, which makes each library richly unique. Yet, the wonderful uniqueness of each is made more wonderful by a crucial, underlying sameness, which is that they all exist to serve the common good of the community.

This is why libraries matter in a way that, say, a Barnes & Noble cannot. These public institutions are democratic by nature, making their resources open to all, thus giving legs to America's historic pursuit of egalitarianism. As James Madison put it:

'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.'

I'm a beneficiary of the public purpose and the community good will that libraries represent. I was born and raised in Denison, Texas, 75 miles due north of Dallas, right on the Oklahoma border. Aside from being the birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower, our town of railroad workers, Main Street merchants, truck drivers, farmers, and other regular folk once had the dubious distinction of being the largest community in Texas without a public library.

Luckily, however, before I was born, the citizenry decided that if Denison was to be any kind of proper town, it needed the anchor of a library. It's said that a local businessman, Clarence Johnson, sparked the movement in 1935 after he grew tired of having to drive 10 miles to our rival city of Sherman to get access to its library's reference books.