From the Bookshelves to the Barricades: The Public Library as First Line of Defense in the Fight for Free Speech

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the government has instituted several laws that have become more invasive of private life, including the reading and viewing habits of Americans. As a result, public libraries have been asked to comply with FBI or other government agency requests about patron information. In 2005 the National Security Agency demanded patron records from four Connecticut librarians. In addition, these librarians were issued a “gag order,” prohibiting them from speaking about this issue, even with their own families. In 2007 residents tried to prevent a library in Cheshire, Connecticut from shelving a book about a gruesome murder that took place in that town. In 2011 another Connecticut library was pressured to cancel a showing of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” a provocative film about the US health care industry. As these three examples show, free speech is not so alive and well. Nevertheless, as this article will also show, these three public libraries (and their librarians) fought to keep or show controversial media or literature, along with fighting the US Government to maintain library patron confidentiality. If these examples show how free speech in the United States is under assault in the twenty-first century, it also shows how the public library has come to be the first line of defense for one of our most cherished values.

Little Free Libraries: Playful Anarchy and the New “Public” Library

A Little Free Library is a “take a book, bring a book” free book exchange. The libraries come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box, mounted in front of a house, that the individual fills with books. Anyone may take a book or bring a book to share. I examine how little free libraries change our relationship to books that circulate on loan. Public and private lending libraries have clearly articulated conventions that establish a contract between library and borrower. Little Free Libraries, on the other hand, forego a contractual relationship. I interrogate, for example, what it means for a book to be deemed “free” from cataloguing, from membership requirements, from records of circulation, from return. There is a playful anarchy in the world of these libraries. Through interviews with stewards in Takoma Park, Maryland, I analyze both what these sites of exchange mean on a personal level and what they mean on a community level. In this community study, I explore what custodianship means to various stewards—from learning why they choose to stock particular books to interactions they have with those who take books from their libraries.

Libraries Where Life Happens : Nontraditional Settings for Libraries

Libraries are occupying spaces that are no longer dedicated solely as book repositories with stacks, reference services, and story times. Starting with an examination of how libraries are coping with digital and virtual competitors, this article presents two explorations of expansions of the Linebaugh Public Library in Rutherford Country, Tennessee (Murfreesboro) to nontraditional sites. One library is sited in a recreational center with computers in the main room and books in the backroom; the other is a new building located on the grounds of an elementary school that contains no books at all, only e-books with computers throughout. These moves provide a model for initiating such a venture in other public library systems. The role of the librarian in these new spaces is included. The primary investigator will use the history of the library, the minutes of board meetings, interviews with library personnel, study of the spaces, and review of the literature to document the process that led to the changes. Patron observations and interviews will be used to document the use of the facility that is already in place (in the recreational center).