Posted September 28th 2010 at 3:07 pm by
in The Library and Society

The Library and Your Right to Know

ScientificAmerica This illustration of the cross-section of the New York Public Library shows the elite library administrators filling the shelves with books as visitors read what is put in front of them.  The image demonstrates that this public institution was crafted to train people into thinking a certain way. This model changed during WWII, when the library stood for “the people’s right to know.” Source: Scientific America Cover, 1911.

World War II and the events of the 1940s presented another major turning point for the public library.  The library became the guardian of the “people’s right to know” in all neighborhoods everywhere. (Harris, 1977)

During the 1940’s, Hitler’s propaganda was proving overwhelmingly successful in Germany, and Mussolini was burning books and suppressing libraries all over Italy.  In light of these developments in Europe, the free access to information on social and political matters became of utmost importance in American democratic society.   This was to be done by providing all with free and convenient access to the nation’s cultural heritage as well as domestic and international current events through the public library.  No one could be excluded from a library’s resources and the user had the right to interpret information for him or her self, without any biases.  (Harris, 1977)

The relationship between minorities and libraries continued to be paradoxical into the late twentieth century, varying from “Anglo-conformity” to “sympathetic cultural pluralism.”  For example, at the Anglo-conformity end, social reformers emphasized “melting pot assimilation” and librarians followed along with their Americanization efforts, which were discussed previously. On the other end of the spectrum is “sympathetic cultural pluralism”, in which library services should include foreign collections, comfortable environments that allowed for the varied dress codes and manners of different cultures, community needs assessments, staff who spoke different languages, personalized contacts, and a stimulation to read as well as gather practical information for day-to-day living.

The Civil Rights Movement marks the clear change in the purpose of the public library from “Anglo-conformity” to “sympathetic cultural pluralism,” from acculturation to accommodation of immigrants. During the urban turnaround of the 1960s, the creation of ghettoes and white flight to the suburbs eliminated a number of traditional library patrons.  Libraries addressed these new characteristics, as well as immigration in the 1960s, which was now more prevalent from non-European countries. Librarians now viewed their jobs as a social responsibility to empower communities, and helped people gain the information they needed to advance in society and fight for their rights.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 reinforced the national War on Poverty Campaign and promoted libraries as elevating the “public good.” (Cuban, 2007)

In the context of this history, the next post will tell the story of Boston’s Chinatown Branch Library, how it was at first an assimilation processing center and then transformed into into an important symbol of cultural preservation.  The post will also discuss the Chinatown neighborhood’s current movement to bring back this facility, which no longer exists in the community.


Harris, Michael. (1973, September 15). The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History. Library Journal

Cuban, Sondra. (2007). Serving New Immigrants in the Library. Libraries Unlimited: Westport, Connecticut.

Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010.  For her thesis, she researched the history of Boston’s Chinatown branch library, and the present-day community movement to reopen this branch. Her other series on CoLab Radio include Who’s on Broad?

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