Exploring the Legacy of Freedom Libraries During National Library Week

By Ree Morrow

At the start of 2022, I went to my local library to register for a library card. As I was filling out the registration form, one of the questions caught my attention:

Are you a registered voter?

As a student, I have moved homes regularly over the last 10 years. Every time I move, in addition to finding a new grocery store and a new gym, I have to find a new library. This was the first time that my local library had ever asked if I was registered to vote. At that moment, I felt like I was seen. I felt like I was invited to participate in this new community. I felt welcome.

If a single question on a library card registration form could have this type of impact on me, it got me thinking: How else can libraries invite people to participate in democracy?

Freedom Libraries* and the Freedom Summer of 1964

Growing up, when I went to the library, movies and television shows prepared me to expect being told to be quiet or to use my inside voice. There was always the imposing librarian at the front desk who was quick with a shhhh.

But what if libraries were places to let your voice be heard? Places to learn and grow together as a community? Libraries are places to engage with new ideas ones that might be different from yours and with your local community.

The history of libraries is far richer than the media cliches about libraries that I grew up with. Libraries have a long history encouraging civic engagement and support for their communities. During Freedom Summer in 1964, approximately 50 Freedom Libraries were established throughout Mississippi. Staffed by volunteers and local residents and operating on shoestring budgets, Freedom Libraries provided library services and literacy guidance for many African Americans, some of whom had never had access to libraries before.

The libraries’ collections were built from donations, circulated among Mississippians who were barred from public libraries due to racism, and emphasized works by and about African Americans. Side by side with affirmations of the value of the Freedom Libraries to their patrons are tales of horror as firebombers and night riders terrorized the volunteers and citizens who occupied the libraries. Some libraries were housed in newly constructed facilities while others were located in abandoned buildings.

National Library Week

The theme for National Library Week 2022, “Connect with Your Library,” promotes the idea that libraries are places to get connected to technology by using broadband, computers, and other resources. Most importantly, libraries connect communities to each other. Overall, the theme is an explicit call to action — an invitation for communities to join, visit, or advocate for their local libraries.

You don’t have to wait until this summer to visit your local library and take advantage of all the amazing civic engagement opportunities offered. National Library Week is this week: April 3-9, 2022.

Four Ways to Explore the Legacy of Freedom Libraries During National Library Week

Today, libraries provide access to information, resources, programs, and public spaces for all members of a community. And they are still cornerstones of civic engagement. Freedom Summer 2022 is approaching. What are some ways that today’s libraries are continuing the legacy of Freedom Libraries?

  •  Provide information about voting and voter registration

Every year libraries in the United States take part in helping their community members prepare to vote. National Voter Registration Day is a nonpartisan civic holiday celebrating our democracy. First observed in 2012, it has quickly gained momentum ever since. Nearly 4.5 million voters have registered to vote on the holiday to date, and hundreds of libraries take part in this amazing event each year. The American Library Association partners with National Voter Registration Day to encourage libraries to support voter registration efforts in states where that is appropriate.

National Voter Registration Day takes place on the fourth Tuesday of September when many communities and organizations promote voter registration. This year, National Voter Registration Day will take place on September 20, 2022. 

  • Offer services for voters and registrants, such as hosting polling places

State and local voting laws vary considerably across the United States. Depending on your state and local laws, your library may host polling locations or ballot drop-off sites. 

  • Convene candidate forums and debates

Depending on whether state and local laws allow them, libraries may host candidate forums and debates. Library forums on local or national issues engage local experts to give talks on voting, elections, or local issues.

Ahead of upcoming elections, many libraries host forums and debates open to all candidates on a ballot to discuss and answer questions from constituents. Some libraries even host movie nights to watch campaign debates. Other libraries host mock elections for youth who are not yet eligible to vote.

  • Deliver resources and educational programs that increase civic and information literacy

Libraries create voter information areas in their libraries and publicize it to the community. Libraries provide information from local election agencies and nonpartisan organizations and post key dates such as voter registration deadlines, primary elections, early voting, and the general election.

Following in the legacy of Freedom Libraries, today’s libraries display books about voting, our democratic system, and major issues in the election. These are resources crucial to voter literacy and education.

Libraries Encourage Us to Speak Up

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Libraries do not silence us, like movies and television shows often portray. Libraries allow us to engage and to speak up for civil rights issues that matter to us, and they support individuals and communities in exercising their freedom to actively participate in democracy.

*Reginald Dwayne Betts, founder and director of Freedom Reads, recently launched a Freedom Library project that aims to create 1,000 Freedom Libraries in prisons across the nation. In using the phrase “Freedom Libraries” in this piece, we want to acknowledge Betts’ important project of the same name, which you can learn more about at https://freedomreads.org/freedom-library.

Ree Morrow is a spring 2022 legal intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.