The purpose of this paper is to endorse the notion that information is the currency of democracy and explore the question of the public library’s role in promoting democracy through the provision of access to information.
A review of the literature and a case study are used.
From the early days of the public library, there has been a certain democratic paternalism in librarians’ views on public libraries, and ambivalence about the extent to which these libraries have provided information to the whole population. Despite this finding, the paper explores the public library’s role in providing information; the currency of information. Public libraries can contribute to the renewal of a democratic public sphere by providing free and ready access to knowledge and information, as well as safe and trusted social spaces for the exchange of ideas, creativity, and decision making.
The paper examines material from the dawn of the public library to current concerns about the role of these libraries in providing access to information, in revitalising citizenship and fostering democracy. It draws on the well-known example of the birth of democracy in South Africa and on discussions of public library neutrality and activism in contemporary France, describing limits on the achievements of libraries in these countries in the context of some current, promising examples from the USA, Britain, Denmark, and Australia.
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