Thomas Jefferson Didn’t Say That & Why It Matters

Librarians have been fact-checking the president since the early days of the U.S.

by Christine Richardson

This piece is a part of our Accio Books series, exploring issues related to literacy, education, and libraries. To find out more about how to get involved and support Accio Books, visit thehpalliance.org/accio_books.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a library as “a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution.” But to many of us, libraries are so much more!

Image of a child reading under a tree with the words “Read for Life”. Via Words Alive

Libraries are places for exploration! They are where we encounter new ideas, find new authors, and discover new worlds. How many times have you read a book that expanded your worldview? How many times has a book you read had a huge impact on your feelings of self-worth, your career, or even your life? The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) owes its existence to a book series, and has done so many wonderful things in the world under the name of the series’ famous character . One of the wonderful things the HPA does each year is a campaign called Accio Books. Accio Books is an HPA sponsored international book drive that to date has collected over 315,000 books, which have all been donated to communities in need around the globe. This year’s recipient is Words Alive, a literary nonprofit in San Diego, CA. Words Alive was founded in 1999 and now serves more than 5,500 students and families each month through numerous reading programs. The idea behind Words Alive is that reading, and lifelong learning, is fundamental to being a productive member of your community.

Speaking of which, have a think about this familiar quote: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” This quote is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. However, there is no evidence he ever said it. Why is this important? The meaning of the quote is very powerful and is said to nicely summarize Jefferson’s views on education. But, he never actually said it. We know this because of historical records kept by libraries and archives. They provide us not only with a future to explore, but also a past to discover.

This story shows us how easily quotes or ideas can make it into popular culture even when their sources are misattributed. Thankfully, libraries (and the access to information contained within them) are here to help us fact-check and discover the truth. We need an educated public, and part of that means publicly accessible information. That is how we will gain knowledge. Libraries provide us with information that helps us become knowledgeable citizens.

“Fake News” spelled out in Scrabble Tiles. Image via the American Library Association

We are living in a time when access to the truth is being put to the test. Right now, we are deeply in need of libraries and the access to information they provide. Libraries enable us to become the educated citizens our democracies need to survive and, hopefully, to thrive. Without libraries providing a historical record, we would not have the tools necessary to know, for instance, that a quote attributed to a famous founding father of the United States was actually misattributed. It also allows us to fact check our elected officials to know whether they are telling us the truth, stretching the truth, or flat out lying to us.

This week, as part of National Library Legislative Day, thousands of librarians and wizard activists stood up for libraries be advocating to Congress for full funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (the source of nearly all federal funding for libraries) and full support for net neutrality. Their activism in D.C. and across the country was amazing — and it’s not over yet. Help libraries keep helping us: call Congress today and tell them about the importance and magic of libraries.

Because fake news can have real-world consequences. Image via ilovelibraries.org

At the end of Accio Books, the recipient site for the campaign (in this case, Words Alive) hosts an event called the Apparating Library where the books received throughout the campaign are distributed back out into the community and given to the kids, youth, and families who most need them. This library is well-named as it has appeared (or, apparated) to numerous places around the world since the start of Accio Books in 2009. Communities in Rwanda, New York City, Michigan, Missouri, the Netherlands, Uganda, and now California have benefited from the increased access to knowledge that this Apparating Library brings. Please join me in advocating for well-informed communities by supporting your local libraries, the Apparating Library, and thousands of young readers around the world through Accio Books!

Christine Richardson is a librarian by day and nerdfighter always. She volunteers with the HPA and Uplift.