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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Libraries can save the summer. And maybe democracy, too.

From loaning Go Pros to providing access to streaming services, libraries have adapted to the times — and remain beacons of truth in an era of misinformation.

Images from Adobe Stock/photo illustration by Ashleigh Bublinec

Summer is here, and if you’re a parent, you know it’s not for the faint of heart.

For this mom, the mere mention of it sparks visions of ravenous kids slathered in SPF 50 yelling, “I’m bored,” “I want a snack,” or the phrase that sends shivers down my spine: “I’ll do it myself!” Weekends are one thing, but all summer long without school? Madness.

Camp is a solution for some and fantasy for many. I’ve read about horse camps, sports camps, performing arts camps, even a circus camp. Then I saw the price tags. After calculating the speed at which camps sell out, I lit some candles and . . . are you still reading? Check on your working parent friends. We’re not OK.

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But there’s a solution right under our noses: the public library. Libraries can save summer for parents and kids, and if you haven’t been to one recently, you might be surprised to find how relevant they are to the world today. And while libraries are keeping your children entertained and enriched, they’re also serving an essential role in preserving our democracy.

The library I work at in Waltham is air conditioned, and open seven days, 68 hours a week in all. We have a toy collection for kids to browse and borrow from, a dollhouse, a playhouse, a train table, and indoor and outdoor play areas. There’s even a room with interactive, museum-inspired activities for children of all ages. Unlike parents, librarians are not ambivalent about a summer with your kids. They want you to come every day! Some, like Medway Public Library, offer young people free food during the summer, bridging food insecurity issues while schools are closed.

Of course, an adult must be on hand to watch children, but libraries — good news — are not just for young people. We obviously have tons of books (yes, people still read — a lot!) and digital materials for you to borrow. We offer free access to streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max, hotspots, and laptops. Librarians teach English, tech and computer classes, and even offer one-on-one tech support as well as résumé and job assistance. Most offer a Library of Things to check out, with cool gadgets like GoPro video cameras and sewing machines, plus cooking, gardening, and crafting tools.

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Year-round, but especially in the summer, the public library is an essential family resource that does not sell cotton candy or souvenirs. You visit, and then take everything home free of charge without the sugar high. Which might be why, in a time of mistrust and misinformation, Americans still trust libraries.

According to a survey published in 2017 by the Pew Research Center, nearly 8 in 10 adults say libraries “help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable.” Seventy-six percent said libraries “help them learn new things.” The resources you access at the library have been vetted by highly-educated professionals. People need factual, timely information and resources without political agendas — and that has been the calling card of public libraries since their inception. At the library, our foundation is built on the idea that knowledge, particularly representative knowledge, is power, and access to that power transforms.

Today, Americans have unfettered access to an absurd amount of information. Librarians, guardians of your intellectual freedom, are here to help you get to the heart of your questions. Brains are complex, and individual experiences shape our quest for knowledge. Librarians are trained to fight implicit biases and push the boundaries of what we think we know to help you make the best decisions.

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Libraries are often touted as a battleground for highly politicized debates on what people should be exposed to, or perhaps more accurately, what young people should not be exposed to. The truth is less complicated, however. Librarians will gladly sacrifice all on the hill of anti-censorship. We have no political agenda at the public library. And we don’t need to: According to a recent poll by the American Library Association, 7 out of 10 voters — including Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — are opposed to books being removed from public libraries.

Democracies are for and by the people, and libraries strive to meet those people where they are. We are intentional, wanting to remove any obstacle that prevents someone from accessing our services, which often means challenging our own assumptions as we work to connect with those who need us the most, and who have the least reason to trust us.

Of course, there is room for growth. While there has been acknowledgement of libraries’ racist history, particularly our harmful refusal to integrate, concrete improvements must still be made. These include addressing the Dewey Decimal Classification system’s racist, sexist approach to classification of materials; questioning why, according to an ALA study, nearly 90 percent of librarians identify as white; and acknowledging the reasons that certain neighborhoods got public libraries built while others did not.

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Still, progress is being made. My library is using census and circulation data to create maps identifying communities we need to help more. We visit schools, senior centers, parks, homeless shelters, and organizations that work with immigrant families. Beyond this crucial outreach, libraries invest in a variety of formats — from large print to audiobooks — to serve everyone, regardless of language, literacy level, or socioeconomic status. And while my library teaches English and reading, you don’t need either skill to access the same level of service.

One more thing: It’s all private. Your right to research in a library is legally protected in Massachusetts, so we can help you find whatever resources you might need, without fear of us sharing that information with anyone else.

In the movie The Day After Tomorrow, an apocalyptic weather storm wipes out most of earth. You know where the survivors were? That’s right — the library. Come visit us. We’re here for you and your family — and for our democracy.


Kelly Linehan is the director of the Waltham Public Library. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.