Chapter 10:

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
— Benjamin Franklin

Public Libraries: Free to the People

Libraries are one of the oldest institutions in the world. Great civilizations had vast libraries to store knowledge for their citizens. In medieval times, reading was a privilege reserved for the elite and religious leaders. The Renaissance saw a rebirth of knowledge for the average citizen, and libraries have continued to play a key role in the cataloging and preservation of a community’s knowledge, as well as enlightenment to meet the current age. Today, libraries exist in every country of the world, in many fashions. There are public libraries, school libraries, university and college libraries, and special libraries, such as those at museums, hospitals and other businesses. As a citizen of Pennsylvania, it is important to understand our Commonwealth’s heritage, to prepare yourself as our future leaders, and to appreciate the vital role libraries have in our communities.

Pennsylvania Libraries: A Brief History

Pennsylvanians can boast of a remarkable heritage of public library service that’s unrivaled by other states. We are, after all, the home of America’s great statesman and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, who founded the free library movement. We’re also the home of the world’s foremost benefactor of public libraries, Andrew Carnegie, whose name has become synonymous with free library service for all citizens.

The books and documents that charted a course for a new republic grew out of deliberations here in Pennsylvania. The tide-turning battle at Gettysburg and President Lincoln's healing words spoken on the site set a young nation warring with itself on a path toward reconciliation. And Pennsylvania's industrial strength and agricultural abundance fueled the triumph of democracy over twentieth-century dictators.

Throughout our history, Pennsylvania’s libraries have served as hallmarks of knowledge, laboratories for intellectual curiosity, and touchstones of our treasured past. Collectively, our libraries represent an educational resource that is vast in scope yet nearby, accessible, and, best of all, free to everyone. With nearly 650 locations across all 67 counties, our public libraries work daily to improve the lives and learning opportunities for Pennsylvanians of all ages, just as they have for more than 200 years.

Based on the most recent statewide data, Pennsylvania libraries:

Libraries touch the lives of thousands of people each and every day through programs and print and online resources that help people build important literacy skills – story hours for pre-schoolers, homework help for teens, nutrition classes for new parents, technology training for career changers, marketing advice for budding entrepreneurs, English language lessons for new Americans, and health care information for all.

Today, many people use Pennsylvania's libraries in the traditional sense, visiting in person and contributing to the library as a hub of community activity, while others experience libraries virtually as their electronic gathering place for news, activities, and learning.

Whether reflecting on Pennsylvania’s rich past or envisioning great plans for our future, we use libraries to enrich our lives, strengthen our families, and improve the vitality of our communities. In good times and bad, our free libraries can always be counted on to support the formal and informal educational needs of all people.

The Library’s Role in Government

Libraries have unique responsibilities and relationships with local, state and federal governments, especially in Pennsylvania. Many famous Pennsylvanian names are synonymous with libraries and education, including Benjamin Franklin and William Penn. Today libraries across the Commonwealth support through their missions, special collections or through everyday programming, the foundations of what it means to be an educated, literate, and responsible citizen of Pennsylvania and the United States of America.

For example, the Pennsylvania State Archives, located in our state capital, Harrisburg, collects, preserves, and makes available for study public records of our Commonwealth. Particular attention is given to the records of state government that are considered to have permanent value. Some collections have national importance, such as the Pennsylvania General Assembly Collection. The General Assembly Collection is the original 422-volume library of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The volumes contained in that Library were used by our Founding Fathers while they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The State Archives also collects papers of private citizens and organizations relevant to Pennsylvania history.

The Pennsylvania State Archives and the Library of Congress house unique print and digital collections. Digital collections are computerized collections, including books and pictures that are available to anyone with Internet access. You can visit any public library in Pennsylvania and access digital collections on the Internet.

Civic & Social Literacy at Your Library

How will Pennsylvania build a better future, one that brings higher levels of school and career readiness, information access, community engagement, personal wellness, and financial health to all its citizens? Libraries provide an answer to that better future question.

Every day, across the Commonwealth, libraries power Pennsylvania’s progress by helping people of all ages build five types of literacy skills essential to functioning successfully as students, parents, employees, citizens, and consumers. These knowledge areas include basic, information, civic and social, health, and financial literacy. Libraries help people:

To help people understand the vital role libraries have in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Library Association has launched an initiative called PA Forward | Pennsylvania Libraries. PA Forward | Pennsylvania Libraries is designed to increase literacy levels across the state and to help people understand and value the role libraries play in our communities.

PA Forward is working to make sure libraries have the resources they need to help people meet the demands of life and reach their greatest potential.

Why is civic and social literacy identified as one of PA Forward’s key literacies? We know that good readers make good citizens. Regular readers are more than twice as likely as non-readers to volunteer. However, voting levels are not as high as they should be, and many citizens lack basic facts and understanding about how government works.

Through their print and online resources, public programs, community outreach services, and employees who are information experts, libraries give Pennsylvania citizens the information they need to fully participate in the life of their communities, learn from our shared history, understand current issues, access government information, and make informed voting decisions.

What are Pennsylvania’s libraries doing to address these needs? They offer high-tech resources and high-touch programs to build civic and social literacy skills in the communities, schools, and colleges and universities they serve.

Here are just a few examples of the many ways libraries address our civic and social needs:

  • Sponsoring “Meet the Candidates” forums, music concerts, lectures, community gardens, intergenerational art programs, and other events
  • Archives of area history
  • Hosting book discussion groups
  • Volunteer opportunities for young people
  • Meeting spaces for support groups, social clubs, and other organizations

“What is Civic & Social Literacy?”

As we have been learning throughout this book, citizenship brings rights and responsibilities. Information is available at your library to help you to participate in government and to become a better citizen.

How You Can Get Involved

How to get involved with your library:

  • Join a Teen Advisory Board at your local public or school library
  • Volunteer as a page at your school library
  • Volunteer to help with the summer reading program at your public library
  • Talk to your local elected officials or school about how important your library is
  • Give a verbal presentation/analysis of what your library does for your community

References for Your Use:

At libraries across the Commonwealth, civic engagement and social literacy exist on many levels. Community members volunteer to serve on the library boards or to assist the library with daily tasks. Community and business leaders support library programs, while volunteer organizations and civic associations collaborate with libraries to provide programming to citizens that help improve their quality of life and prepare for a better future.

Examples of Library-Related Websites
Pennsylvania Library Association
PA Forward
Library of Congress
American Library Association
National Archives Presidential Libraries
Citizens Archivist Dashboard
Pennsylvania Bureau of State Library
Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission
Penn State University Digital Collections
AccessPA Digital Repository
Heinz History Center

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
—Neil Gaiman