If you enjoy some of the books written by prominent atheists, haven't you also wished that more people could be encouraged to read them as well? You probably aren't rich enough to buy a thousand copies to distribute to homes around your community, but you can achieve some of the same effect by ensuring that copies are available in your local public libraries. Public libraries continue to be an important source of books and information for many in America — and you can help.
Have you ever checked your local public library to see what they offer in the way of atheist, secularist, and freethought material? Most probably haven't, and those that have are often disappointed. Aside from a few classics like as Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and best-sellers like Dawkins' The God Delusion, many libraries have tended to carry few books and magazines for atheists or about atheism. This is as understandable as it is unfortunate — they have probably had little call for such material and there is more than enough bias against atheists to create resistance to spending public funds on it.
Why Are Public Libraries Important?
Getting enough atheist, freethought, skeptical, secular, and humanist material in libraries is important because not everyone can obtain this material on their own. Some people don't have enough money to buy the books and magazines and few have enough money to buy all the books and magazines. Libraries can carry a broader array of material than bookstores as well as a deeper selection of older material — including material no longer in print. Where else will you find magazines and journals from several years ago?
Furthermore, not everyone who wants to read such material can do so at home. Young people with religious parents may not be able to buy atheist books and explore atheism at home but they can read whatever they want in a library without censure. Indeed, anyone with a very religious family may encounter problems at home if they bring in atheist literature, but there is little fear from going to the library to read.
There are also people who may be curious enough to look more closely at atheist, skeptical, freethought, and humanist material but who aren't ready to "commit" by spending money. Books and magazines in a library are a perfect way for people to gradually investigate what all the fuss is about in a risk-free manner. Maybe they will reject what they read or maybe they will go out to buy more, but either way they will at least be better informed.
Opportunities for Atheism in Public Libraries
The high profile of recent atheist books creates a large window of opportunity because it proves that there is a significant audience out there for such material and any bias against atheism will be harder to maintain. If your local public library doesn't already have books by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens, you should submit requests for them. If the library has copies but they are constantly checked out, request that they get some more. Public libraries also sometimes accept donations of books, but you'll need to ask the conditions because they won't likely accept your worn, used books for any purpose but a fund-raising sale.
These are not the only books that libraries should have, though. There is a broad selection of books about atheism, freethought, agnosticism, secularism, and religious critique which libraries should carry. Given the current popularity of a few atheist books, it may be easier to get libraries to purchase more on the same or similar subjects. It would be a good idea to find the appropriate librarian and talk to them about their purchasing policies and how to best present your case. Perhaps they would prefer a large list to begin selecting from, but then again they might prefer a few key recommendations now which can be updated gradually over time.
Don't forget also that there is more than just books out there. Several magazines and journals are published by and for atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, and religious critics. Just as you can request them to purchase atheist books, you can request that they begin carrying some of these magazines as well. If they can't for budget reasons, you may have the option of purchasing a gift subscription for them. You will need to talk to them first about this, though, because they won't want to take a risk of only getting a year or two before the gift stops. You may need to commit to a guarantee of 5 or 10 years before they accept. Talk to other freethinkers and atheists in your community about what would be best to purchase and how to fund it.
Opportunities for Atheism in School Libraries
Don't forget the libraries in local public schools — they may not be the place for some of the more sophisticated and academic books or journals, but there are plenty of atheist and humanist books which would be a good fit. There is also a growing list of atheist and humanist books directed specifically at children of various age groups. If your school libraries don't have these, you should look into what you need to do to get copies there.
Unfortunately, making a difference with public school libraries may be harder than it will be with general public libraries. Public school libraries are subjected to different sorts of bureaucratic control, in particular local school boards. It's much easier for religious conservatives to push through censorship in public school libraries than it is with general public libraries so you may not be successful in getting schools to offer books presenting positive information about atheism and atheists.
You may also have greater difficulty getting access to a public school library. Anyone can enter a general public library and make suggestions about what it carries, but unless you have a child attending the school in question, you may not have any say about the books they carry — or even find out what books are available in the first place. It's still worth trying because of how important it is to reach children, but you'll probably be better off starting with other local public libraries in order to gain experience and establish a precedent.