What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

Save a Library, Save Democracy

July 27, 2011, 11:08 AM

Earlier this summer I was feeling down in the dumps about libraries. I was spending the month of June in Flushing, Queens, a melting-pot neighborhood where the local library bustles with patrons of all ages. Unfortunately, like much of the Queens Library system, the Flushing branch had been threatened with budget cuts and severely curtailed hours. For no good reason, it looked as though large numbers of immigrant kids, intellectually curious retirees, and other decent folks would soon be limited in their access to this community hub. It was the kind of crisis that would usually get solved in the movies by a ragtag band of teenagers and a little electric boogaloo, but this was harsh reality, and no hope, funky or otherwise, seemed to lie in store.

Around the same time, I read this article in The New York Review of Books. “Across the United States,” according to poet Charles Simic,

…large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own….“The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

This last sentence reminded me, with a little ironic pang, of democracy as E. B. White defined it:

[It] is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.

“Communion” hits it on the nose. Simic points out that in many towns, libraries are the only places “where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace.” I would go further and argue that they’re among the last truly public spaces left to us. Where else can we congregate without an admissions ticket, or money enough to afford something on the premises? Parks, maybe, but those aren’t frequented year-round, or readily accessible in poorer communities.


New York City, Midtown Manhattan, New York Public Library NYPL, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 1897-1911. 5th Avenue

New York Public Library, 42nd Street, Manhattan


Shared institutions like libraries do more than keep a democracy working: they make maintaining one seem worth the trouble. Without the human connection they provide, America would barely seem like a common reality, much less a communal responsibility.

Hence my early summer blues; but as it turned out, all was not yet lost. In protest against the budget cuts, some savvy Queens Library members set up an online petition, which I signed at the encouragement of a friend. It looks like we weren’t alone, because a couple of weeks ago I received an email with the subject “Thank You! Library Services Saved”:

We have wonderful news to report….Your voices were heard loud and clear. The Mayor and the City Council came together to restore the lion’s share of the proposed reduction to libraries, ensuring that libraries stay open at least 5 days per week in every community…

Especially during a month dominated by less encouraging budget news, this felt great to read. My friend and I signed an electronic thank-you note to city officials via the QL website. And at sunset that same day, the citizens of Flushing congregated on the library steps for an impromptu, multiethnic victory boogaloo.

I may have imagined that last part, but the rest of it is true—and if it can happen in one neighborhood, it can happen in others. Weak as America’s political will is, we’re still a nation that exercises it from the bottom up, not the top down. Simic says the library closings are unpopular nationwide; I hope he’s right. I hope more than half of the people disapprove of them, and will register their disapproval through petitions and at the polls.

Of all the elements mentioned in White’s definition, libraries might well be the secret cornerstone. As long as we have them, American democracy will remain “the mustard on the hot dog” (White again). If we lose them, it risks becoming the fly on the watermelon—the brown spot on the corncob—the sour relish of complacency on the undercooked bratwurst of apathy, eaten at a barbecue of no return.

Or at least a much sadder version of what it was.


[Images via Flickr, users garybembridge and Vincent Desjardins.]


Save a Library, Save Democracy

Newsletter: Share: