Libraries and democracy

Gepubliceerd op 17 november 2015 om 11:18

BBC World Service. “World Questions”, Royal Library of Belgium, 17 november 2015.


How should Europe respond to the migration crisis? Can the EU meet the historic challenges the continent now faces? Is the European Project about to collapse ? So many questions that are particularly important in the light of the horrific events in Paris. 129 people were killed, another more than 300 wounded. Not only France is in shock, Europe faces one of the major crises of modern times. And there are no easy answers! The challenges of today are enormous. The IS attacks in Paris are not just a French or a Belgian problem. They are also a European problem that only can be solved through strong collaboration between the European member states. For these attacks are a threat to democracy and humanity.

Tonight, I think the Royal Library of Belgium in the center of Brussels is the right place to hold this debate. There is a clear relation between our democracy, the right of free expression and the importance of libraries, both the large and the small, as sources of knowledge and opinions. The core business of libraries lies essentially in preserving a cultural production, in especial the written and printed culture, and making it available. The reason why cultural and historical heritage, why books are so important, lies in the fact that it extends beyond our need for food, for health, for shelter and safety. They are carriers of knowledge and cultural identity and also appeal to a whole set of values as there are cultural diversity and pluralism of cultures, the freedom to think and to seek inspiration. Each one of these values inherent in a democracy.

But libraries are, like the Stoa of the 5th century Athenian democracy, also meeting places for citizens who come together to discuss, perfect places for debate, for sharing of knowledge, for the strengthening of democratic thought and critical citizenship. By doing so, libraries can offer a safe space for dialogue and discussion about real issues in our society. . In my opinion, it is therefore important that a national library such as Royal Library as well as a local library not only facilitates information and research, but also creates debate and encounters and enforces a high level of commitment. Libraries are the venues for a deliberative democracy.

Democracy requires an engaged and well informed citizenry. Since the second half of the 19th century scholars at various times stressed upon the link between the public library and democracy. During World War II when the future of democracy was uncertain, Franklin D. Roosevelt described libraries as "the great symbols of the freedom of the mind. Freedom of the mind implies the freedom of information. So, there is no doubt that libraries still play an important role in advancing democracy.