Policies that keep people from visiting their local library

All the people who were involved with the amazing physical transformation of the library at Wilmington should be commended for the outstanding results, as well as the near lack of service interruption throughout the renovation. There were standards of historic preservation that were adhered to while the modernizing updates were going on. For example, the disability access should be lauded. Sadly, though, in just about every other way, restricted access seems to be the norm at the new library.

The new library has an array of awesome new meeting rooms, but based on information from the library’s website, these are governed by a restriction on their use for any religious meeting. The majority of the reference collection, which was once on the top floor and which was once accessible to the public to look through, is now held in a special room and can only be accessed by request of a reference librarian. This is an idea that the American Library Association especially discourages.

The most disturbing thing of all is that the physical access to the library itself is not even permitted to those who do not have a state-issued photo ID or a Delaware library card. This was a policy that was instituted by the Public Library Board of Governors.

The Wilmington Public Library is what is referred to as an association library, and that means that even thought it receives a lot of its funding from public sources (like New Castle County mostly) it is still controlled by a board which picks its members. The Association libraries represent a shrinking and small share of public libraries in America – less than 15% according to a survey in 2008. A board whose members are given their appointments through the executive or local legislature controls the majority of public libraries in America.

Is it really any surprise that a board of governors who has almost exclusively white males on it made the decision that the Wilmington Public Library would deny access to anyone who did not have a state-issued ID card? The Wilmington Public Library is, or it definitely should be in the future, just what commentators, critics, courts, and judges have always recognized: that public libraries are the foundation of our democracy.

The Wilmington Public Library has to remain accessible to everyone, even to people who do not have, or cannot get, a library card or identification card. And, the board of governors has to look beyond its small circle of corporate executives, lawyers, and bankers when recruiting new members for voting.

Unfortunately, the new library modifications, and the policies of the board, have garnered a lot of criticism because of their exclusionary effects. It is best that the board of governors rethink some of their decisions, instead of standing behind these decisions that are difficult and unfair for a lot of people.

The Wilmington Public Library should be a place that all members of the community should be able to come to.


  1. Sharon Hawkes says

    As the director of an association library, I am disappointed that you seem to be casting nonprofit organization public libraries in a bad light. Regarding meeting rooms and religious worship: I think the point of this rule is to not use tax dollars (Wilmington receives 74% of its income from county taxes) in support of a particular religion. Regarding needing state ID or a library card to access the library: I do not see that rule on their website; however, I do see the ability to use the public computers with out-of-state ID. (How could one use computers if one can’t even get in the building?) But most importantly, smart communities should explore ways in which to partner with their nonprofit public libraries in order to further community goals. Nonprofit libraries can do some things that town department libraries cannot, including providing more service for fewer tax dollars, make independent decisions, receive grants reserved for nonprofits, and serve as fiscal partners. Association libraries can be a great asset to their communities, and should be supported!