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VALUES FOR THE ELECTRONIC INFORMATION AGE: A value that bonds: The library as a uniquely democratic institution

by John W. Collins III

As ACRE President W. Lee Hisle contemplated his term in office, and probably even earlier as he considered his candidacy, he settled on the theme “Facing the Millenium: Values for the Electronic Information Age.” All presidents have themes. Themes focus the activities of an organization and provide a sense of cohesion and direction for the membership. In Hisle’s case, he has given us all the opportunity for reflection and renewed commitment. While not the first person to discuss the issues of values in the electronic age, Hisle—through a year of programs, discussion, focus groups, videos, editorials, etc.—has raised the bar by focusing the entire Association of College and Research Libraries on the values that are inherent within the profession of academic librarianship. He is to be commended.

As I reflect on these matters, the usual topics emerge: intellectual freedom, equity, service, cultural preservation. All virtues worthy of aspiration for any academic librarian. I am struck, however, by the common theme inherent in all of our values— libraries are the embodiment of the democratic ideal.

Libraries are uniquely democratic institutions. All American libraries fit this mold in one way or another. It is a value that transcends types of libraries—academic, public, school, etc. It is a value that bonds different types of librarians. It is the overriding value that is basic to our profession, one from which our other values spring.

Within academic libraries, collections attempt to present a variety of views. Equal access to information is promoted among the clientele and the clientele, like the collections, is diverse. Libraries are neutral and nonjudgmental. Even within college and research libraries, the democratic image of the self-educated individual can be seen daily as users pursue their studies within the stacks. The promotion of lifelong learning is a value embodied within higher education.

Now the question before us is how is this democratic ideal to be viewed in Hisle’s new millennium? I believe that we do not have to reinvent our core values, they are enduring. Rather, we must meet the challenges and opportunities of the information age fortified by our convictions and firmly anchored in our values.

The third wave

I put the value of libraries as the embodiment of the democratic ideal in the following context. It can be argued that we are in the midst of a third great wave of expansion of libraries in this country. The first period of rapid growth was the result of Andrew Carnege’s vision and largess. His belief in the value of the library in the development of a nation was steadfast. The second period of growth occurred during the third quarter of this century and was the result of the rapidly expanding—and moving—population of the United States. Suburban growth, college and university expansion, and LSA and LSCA governmental support contributed to this period. The value of libraries as a critical component of a democratic society was thoroughly engrained in our national psyche.

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