Jim Hightower

For me, the truest symbol of America’s great democratic spirit is not to be found in the formal and imposing edifices of our republic—the White House, the Capitol, or the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others. Rather, I look to the much more modest, diverse, dispersed, and welcoming expressions of our nation’s egalitarian ideals: our public libraries.

Libraries in particular embody the collective story of a place, which makes each library richly unique. Yet the wonderful uniqueness of each is made more wonderful by a crucial, underlying sameness, which is that they all exist to serve the common good of the community.

This is why libraries matter in a way that, say, a Barnes & Noble cannot. These public institutions are democratic by nature, making their resources open to all, thus giving legs to America’s historic pursuit of egalitarianism. As James Madison put it:

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

I’m a beneficiary of the public purpose and the community goodwill that libraries represent. I was born and raised in Denison, Texas, seventy-five miles due north of Dallas, right on the Oklahoma border. Aside from being the birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower, our town of railroad workers, Main Street merchants, truck drivers, farmers, and other regular folk once had the dubious distinction of being the largest community in Texas without a public library.

Luckily, however, before I was born, the citizenry decided that if Denison was to be any kind of proper town, it needed the anchor of a library. It’s said that a local businessman, Clarence Johnson, sparked the movement in 1935 after he grew tired of having to drive ten miles to our rival city of Sherman to get access to its library’s reference books.

In the old barn-raising spirit, all sorts of people joined the effort, though they didn’t have to build a barn, since Denison’s wealthiest family, the Munsons, offered one of their old homes rent-free for two years. This fine building had been the first brick house built in our town, so housing the library there added both cachet and seriousness to the cause.

The town held a fund-raising carnival at the high school. Boy Scouts assisted in collecting books and magazines. The high school librarian, Ms. Pauline Jordan, directed the cataloging, and, on November 22, 1935, the library formally opened with a “book and silver tea†attended by 250 proud Denisonians. The book collection totaled 1,200 volumes.

The public response was so strong that the voluntary library did not have the operating funds and books to meet the need. So an election was called and the good citizens of our town voted to raise their property taxes and adequately fund a full-time public library. Bear in mind, this was in the midst of the Depression!

By the time I was old enough to get my own check-out card, Denison’s library had moved into a first-rate, modern building with air-conditioning and thousands of books that brought the entire world to my fingertips. All of this was available to me because others thought that it was a matter of providing for the common good. My parents, Lillie and “High†Hightower, had been part of this community development, voting all along the way to tax themselves in order to make such a possibility available to the people, especially including those who couldn’t afford to buy books.

Actually, my folks might have been considered likely to oppose the availability of free books and magazines, since they ran a newsstand and a wholesale business selling books and magazines. But they believed that a library was good for all, and that what was good for all would be good for them…and their three boys.

This is the true spirit of America, the public spirit that the rest of the world rarely glimpses, and that we’re rarely shown by our own media and political powers. This is the spirit we must highlight, tap into…and build our democratic future on.

This article appears in Jim Hightower’s latest book, Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush (Viking Books), and is reprinted here with permission.

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Published at 12:00 am CST