Public libraries are viewed as a democratic achievement, but we need to examine the ways in which they fall short.

Illustration by Ingrid Wu.


The first time I saw the architecture of the Alachua County Library District Headquarters Branch was in the background of a Snapchat that I viewed one day not studying in UF’s Library West. Behind the flowery Snapchat filter were the headquarters’ not-quite-mint walls and the facade of pseudo-industrial wooden beams.

Self-consciously hunched over my computer, the sour aftertaste of my overly sweet latte stuck in the back of my throat, I thought to myself that it looked like a much more pleasant place than Library West to (actually) study.

On a sunny day, the tall windows bring a brightness to the public library that’s also a kind of happiness. The sun lights the pages of the book you’re reading, sharpening its words, and illuminates the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that overlooks the computers as people, their heads aglow, democratically access the internet.

Working in the public library, you feel like you are, as John Dewey wrote of public schools in “The School and Society” (1899), part of “an embryonic community life, active with the types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society.”

Much is written about the creation of our public education system in the 1890s, its pedagogical advancement and its political advancement about 60 years later. And much is written about Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist who argued that a civic education should train “each child of a society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service.”

Not much, however, is written about Dewey’s views on democratic education vis-a-vis segregation (only that he did not publicly object to it).

And very little is written about the inception and the advancement of the public library and its history as a political space. It’s almost like the public library has no interesting or complicated history at all.

Yet we love the public library. A study from the Pew Research Center found that millennials are the most likely generation of Americans to use the public library. Accordingly, I’ve read multiple Twitter threads that praise public libraries as one of the last places in our country where you can exist for free. And this is true. Lots of homeless people utilize the public library for that reason.

But there’s a problem with this construction. The phrase “one of the last” implies a sense of historical permanency as if, like the long-standing live oak outside your house, the public library was always as it is now.

As public spaces become commodified (see: our national parks), it makes sense we’d come to value, and pay attention to, those spaces that are free even more. Concurrently, we fall into the trap of perceiving these spaces in a way sociologist Rob Shield calls “ignored one minute, over-fetishized the next.” We should be wary of this trap, and consider the ways in which our perception of the public library reflects American history not as it is, but as we wish it would be.

The public library is a free space that should be valued and protected, but we wont be able to do that unless we understand its complexities.

Historically, Gainesville’s public libraries weren’t the free spaces they are today. The city’s first public library opened in 1903 with books donated by women from a literary society called the Twentieth Century Club; it was pay-to-play at $5 ($133 today). A second library opened a few years later in the office of a sewing machine company; it charged $2 a year. A 1991 pamphlet on local library history made sure to note, in opinionated historiography, that “perhaps competition was already bringing the price down.”

After the two libraries decided cooperation was a better option and consolidated their resources, they approached the city about obtaining a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to build a free public library. Here, the history of Gainesville’s public library intersects with a key era in American history, the Gilded Age, a time of rapid industrialization between 1870 and 1900 that created some of the wealthiest men ever.

Andrew Carnegie, one such wealthy man, made his money off steel. A Scottish immigrant, his was the classic rags-to-riches story. In 1889, after he was sufficiently wealthy, Carnegie began to fund the creation of public libraries to educate immigrants like himself.

Like us, Carnegie loved the public library. After his death, the Carnegie Foundation would fund much of Dewey’s writings on the democratizing value of education.

Ultimately, Gainesville secured funding the Carnegie funding, and the city’s first public library was built. Its location would move around until 1991 when the headquarters reopened in its original downtown spot.

The 1991 pamphlet is detailed: It lists exactly how many people voted in a referendum on a property tax for the library. Yet it gives only two lines to the segregated public library, Carver Branch, simply to say that it opened in 1953 and closed in 1969 as Gainesville’s schools were being desegregated.

“There was no announcement: the branch was simply ‘closed temporarily for repairs’ and not reopened when there was no public outcry about blacks using the main library. For the first time, the library served all citizens equally,” it reads. 

Buried underneath a historical narrative of bootstrapping immigrants and scrappy women is one line that admits the story isn’t as idyllic as we might believe.

We’ve thought critically of the public school. We understand it was not always inclusive. And from every new story about book-banning, we know that the public library is a target of those who seek to revise history through censorship. So why haven’t we reconsidered our attitude toward the public library? Like with our parents, we need to grow up to accept that these spaces are neither wholly good nor bad.

In 1967, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote that “space is nothing but the inscription of time in the world, spaces are the realisations, inscriptions in the simultaneity of the external world of a series of times.” In other words, space is the past physically interacting with the present.

The public library today, as a space that is both valorized for its freedom and targeted for the refuge that freedom provides to homeless people, is an unexamined culmination of how our narratives, built up over years of history, interact with society today. The public library is also, quite literally, a space for the inscription of time in the world, that is, books. It is a free space that should be valued and protected, but we won’t be able to do that unless we understand its complexities. •