While we should all be thankful librarians defend access to that information so vigorously, we shouldn’t be surprised, because it was here in New England that the idea of a free library first took root. The town of Franklin, of course, named itself after Benjamin Franklin, who in turn donated 116 books to the town. Franklin’s town meeting voted to lend the books to its residents free of charge in 1790. Other communities laying a claim to first public library status include Boston and Peterborough, N.H.
Today, libraries face the dual challenges of dwindling budgets (a trend that has hit public school libraries especially hard) and the changing needs of the people they serve.
“As communities have changed, so has the relationship of the library to the community,” ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels said. “The traditional library was a passive provider, reacting to community needs. The library opened its doors, and people came in to use its materials and services.
“Today, the library must be proactive; it must engage the community. ... Increasingly, libraries are serving as conveners, bringing community members together to articulate their aspirations and then innovating in order to become active partners and a driving force in community development and community change.”
That is certainly true here on the North Shore, home to several innovative, engaging, forward-thinking libraries. Peabody Institute Library, for example, will work this year with Clark Farm in Danvers on a Community Supported Agriculture project, offering regionally grown fruits and vegetables to local “shareholders” throughout the summer. The library has also unveiled this year a “creativity lab,” which includes a 3-D printer and scanner, an embroidery machine and a recording studio.
“Our model of a free public library is a little different,” library Director Martha Holden told reporter Alan Burke in February.
As much as Peabody Institute Library and its counterparts change to meet the times, however, they deserve praise for continuing to defend the bedrock principle of a free exchange of ideas, however uncomfortable those ideas — including a briefs-wearing children’s superhero — may be to some.