Ashton Lyle: Save Friday, September 8 from 6–8 pm for Benicia Public Library’s future

As the culture wars find a new front in public libraries, Benicia Public Library’s strategic plan presentation this Friday represents more than just a look into our library’s future

By Ashton Lyle, September 5, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

During my first year of college, my friend offered me a tour of her hometown, a small community in the Boston suburbs. While exploring downtown, she pointed out a small, nondescript building that had been the nation’s first public library. Founded by Benjamin Franklin in a town named for him, this library broke with the tradition of previous lending collections, which had subscription rates equivalent to $575 today. Instead, access was free to the community. 

The public library model pioneered in Franklin, Massachusetts expanded across the country, and libraries rapidly became essential public spaces, serving as community gathering points that hosted meetings, town events, and literary discussions. The Benicia Public Library, which helped introduce me to a love of learning as an elementary school student through its summer reading program, continues in this tradition and was fundamental to my intellectual development, especially when coupled with the libraries at my elementary, middle, and high schools.

Today, these same institutions are regularly under attack, both in Benicia and nationwide. The state of Georgia just applied its “divisive concepts” law for the first time, firing a longtime teacher for reading “My Shadow is Purple” to her class, a children’s book about “being true to oneself and moving beyond the gender binary.” And in Benicia, proponents of anti-trans bigotry have spoken before the school board with all the faux intellectualism typical of the “do your own research” crowd. 

These attacks have converged around school libraries which, despite their importance in educational outcomes, are now at continual risk of restriction and censorship. This is an especially concerning development because of the strong correlation between strong library programs and student success, even after correcting for parent education and income levels. Interestingly, studies find it is staffing levels, rather than the size of a library’s collection, that determine students’ success.

This finding reflects the changing nature of the contemporary library. The library, once focused largely on lending and storing books, has adapted to the internet age, refocusing its mission to become an essential training resource for media literacy, academic research, and critical thinking. In an age where a nearly infinite amount of written material is instantly accessible to students at an increasingly young age, libraries play an essential role in teaching young people how to process and prioritize information. 

Today, libraries are the primary means by which we teach students to vet the truth and relevance of something they’ve read. School libraries regularly provide students with formal training on how to responsibly use online resources, providing fundamental approaches to gathering quality information that is missing from many segments of our population. They also lead by example, providing young people with reading material that is accurate and well-contextualized, thereby familiarizing them with factual texts and well-informed opinions. In contrast to the internet, which provides stimuli in the most engaging package possible, a library contains information that is organized, research-backed, and vetted for extreme content. Learning to tell the difference between fact and fiction is increasingly difficult to teach, but libraries do it more successfully than any other resource I’ve seen.

Equally important to consider is that attempting to limit the information in school libraries, where it can be contextualized by librarians and expanded upon by other texts, does not eliminate a young person’s desire for this information. By removing texts and topics from the professionally curated and regulated space of a public library, “activists” such as Mom’s for Liberty force young people to seek insight through more accessible means, like the internet, where information is wholly unregulated, regularly untruthful, and usually decontextualized. Real harm takes place when naive children, desperate for guidance, stumble across content that exposes ignorant, explicit, or hateful beliefs. Algorithmic incentives to prioritize engaging content can lead teens to view self-harm, dangerous, or extremist content at a very impressionable age, potentially trapping them in silos of thought from which it can be difficult to extract oneself. 

Attempting to pull books off shelves condemns our young people to explore the world of information alone, without guidance and without guardrails. It leaves them un-inoculated against illiberal thought, prejudice, and other harms. Ultimately the censorship approach harms children’s development, produces adults less interested and able to participate in civil society, and further weakens our democratic institutions. This has been evidenced in civil societies across regions and cultures; there is nothing innate in America that will prevent it from happening here. Only a wholesale rejection of reactionary tendencies amongst our neighbors can stop the slow slide to autocracy.

Libraries are essential to giving young people the tools, information, and desire to maintain and expand America’s civil society. This is why I encourage all residents to participate in the upcoming discussion regarding the future of the library. On Friday, September 8th from 6 – 8 pm, the BPL is holding a meeting that discusses future planned initiatives. Help keep our library relevant and our society free. 

RSVP here.