Checking out democracy
Andrew Carnegie said, in 1903, “Free libraries maintained by the people are cradles of democracy, and their spread can never fail to extend and strengthen the democratic idea[.]” At a recent public meeting, Nancy Levin, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System director, echoed Carnegie when she called her organization “a facilitator of democracy.” We decided to explore how the Heights libraries function as part of the infrastructure of local democracy.
We have what is called a school district library system, serving both Cleveland Heights and University Heights. Not all school districts have their own public libraries. Beachwood and South Euclid-Lyndhurst, for example, are served by the Cuyahoga County system.
A small portion of our property tax goes to the CH-UH system, and periodically we vote on library tax levies. Those served by county libraries pay those levies; no one pays taxes to both systems. Library boards decide when to put levies on the ballot.
Our Heights library system manages to be both hyper-local and regional—intimately small and mind-bogglingly large. Levin calls the four branches of the CH-UH Public Library System (Lee Road, Coventry Village, Noble Neighborhood and University Heights) “anchors for their neighborhoods.”
This hyper-local focus enables the branches to respond directly to patrons’ wants and needs.
For example, the Noble Neighborhood branch provides outreach to Nepalese refugees living nearby, including weekly citizenship and English classes. The branch also makes regular deposits of books to two neighborhood barbershops that serve as informal community centers.
The Coventry Village branch provides special services to the deaf community, as well as arts programming with the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus organizations.
The University Heights branch offers two very special collections: Jewish fiction for all ages, and Russian crossword puzzles!
The Lee Road branch boasts an extensive collection of foreign language books, offers passport services, and has computer labs in the Heights Knowledge and Innovation Center.
Every branch offers voter registration, serves as an Election Day polling place, and provides tax forms and government benefits information.
The “large” part of Heights Libraries comes courtesy of CLEVNET, a consortium of 44 library systems across 12 Northeast Ohio counties. It is one of the largest public library systems in the world, giving 1 million cardholders access to more than 10 million items. It dates to 1980, when the Cleveland Public Library put its catalog online and invited other systems in the region to access it and link their own databases. In 1982, CH-UH was the first to join, and CLEVNET was born. The most recent additions were the Rocky River and Geauga County public libraries, in 2017.
Heights Libraries upholds the American Library Association’s longstanding Library Bill of Rights. Among its tenets:
- Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
- Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
- Libraries should challenge censorship . . .
- A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
Our public libraries’ commitment to the principles of democracy is not merely an abstraction. In addition to providing print materials and access to technology and electronic media, they bring people together to discuss books, study English, learn new technologies, knit, play the ukulele, and much more. They help us become citizens, vote, and even pay taxes. They connect us with our own community and the wider world.
We cannot imagine life without the Heights libraries. A local library levy has never failed yet, so we must have plenty of company.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, and has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.