Libraries are at the root of democracy

Giving birth to a country isn’t easy, especially one that radically deviated from 18th-century norms by supporting the fundamental principles that all men are created equal and should be free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

Establishing these beliefs as the country’s foundation required arduous negotiations. We may like to believe that our Founding Fathers were a friendly and harmonious group but this is far from the truth. Disagreements on fundamental issues such as state rights, federalism and slavery led to contentious debates.

Convinced that consensus could only be reached if they learned more from books and from each other, Benjamin Franklin wrote the Articles of Agreement with colleagues who pooled resources to share and purchase books; they were scarce and expensive. Franklin, a remarkable man of action, understood that, by educating themselves, they were more likely to reach a consensus on the difficult issues of the day. The result was the birth of the library as a public institution.

Today, just as in Franklin’s time, this American institution is vital to us as citizens. Although they serve as incubators for learning and the exchange of ideas, libraries are in jeopardy in Miami-Dade County. It shouldn’t be, and the fact that it is creeping closer to the chopping block is a shameful commentary on the state of county affairs.

The problem isn’t that the libraries have been poorly managed — the opposite is true. In fact, the millage rate was lowered because libraries were run efficiently and had a healthy balance in reserves to support the new libraries that were coming online. For years, libraries in Miami-Dade have been used as the county’s piggy bank as its allotted funds were siphoned to support the general budget.

The assault continued as library budgets have been slashed more than 50 percent in the past four years, resulting in a reduction of programs and hours of operation.

This reflects a complete misunderstanding of the mission and importance of libraries in building community in a healthy democracy. Libraries provide the seeds for early learning through children’s programs and all who need access to scarce or expensive information. The American library has become the new community center. Like university libraries, which were the first to change, they are curators of information; librarians guide us with the expertise to access material.

These days, libraries are not used exclusively to check out a book. They serve to engage kids of all ages through pre-K learning programs, chess clubs, computer-learning programs, even assisting retirees in learning how to file for Social Security benefits. The library invites community engagement and is becoming the new watering hole.

The North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens is a great example of the evolving library experience. Supported by the Knight Foundation, YouMediaMiami is offered to teenagers with a library card who want to learn how to use and create with digital media. They learn to work collaboratively on digital projects, including animation and online journalism.

Today, students from five different schools arrive at North Dade Regional Library to learn and engage creatively in their own unique and supervised space.

The Miami Gardens branch serves a community where 43 percent of the children do not have access to the Internet. Without digital access, this large demographic will be left out of the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

Miami-Dade has awakened to the fact that the artistic culture in our community is good business, but it has missed the connection that museums have with libraries. A recent Pew study shows that patrons of museums are also patrons of libraries. It is a more-affluent population that supports and uses library services. Conversely, those least likely to use libraries tend to be of lesser economic means and have little or no exposure to cultural events.

Benjamin Franklin’s first library association adopted the motto: “To support the common good is divine.” That is something both county commissioners and the mayor need to remember. Perhaps this will get their attention: By supporting libraries you are forming the future patrons of the arts — big thinkers, healthy spenders, consistent voters.