The last thing Americans needs are fewer library hours

The last thing Americans needs are fewer library hours
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Earlier this month, librarians across the country got the alert that we have all come to expect and dread. For the second year in a row, the president’s budget request called for the “orderly closure” of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The IMLS is the only federal agency with dedicated funding for libraries and museums, and one of its major roles is to provide block grants to states to purchase technology for libraries.

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You've likely never heard of the IMLS, but if you're one of the 171 million Americans with library cards, who made approximately one billion visits to public libraries annually, you've benefited.

 

With billions of items circulated and hours of internet access provided, libraries help people stretch their educational and entertainment dollars. The IMLS also funds museums to expand educational programs and provide wider access to materials through digitization. In short, the IMLS keeps libraries relevant to their communities and museums able to reach a wider population.

But the president believes that it is expendable. The budget justification states that “it is unlikely the elimination of IMLS would result in the closure of a significant number of libraries and museums.” It’s true that no library or museum is solely funded by IMLS–they also survive on taxes, tuition, fundraising, and endowments.

But a public library in an area with a tiny tax base has less to work with. If a library in a poor area can’t afford to be open daily or have upgraded technology, does it really matter if it’s still open? Budget cuts like these serve only to exacerbate wealth disparities and weaken social mobility.

As federal agencies go, IMLS is not all that well funded to begin with. Its fiscal 2017 appropriation was $231 million — that's about .006 percent of the federal budget, so cutting it is like balancing your annual household budget by cutting out one cup of coffee for the year. And it’s not the only agency that supports art, learning, and culture that is slated for elimination.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all facing another year of uncertainty as the budget request calls for their elimination again in 2019. Cutting these four agencies would save around $1 billion. To put that in perspective, the budget request calls for $686 billion for the Department of Defense.

There’s no telling the downstream economic and cultural consequences of that meager savings. For one, nearly all public libraries offer internet access and help with using computers, and around 80 percent provide job application help. Some provide hands-on access to technology for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

There are less obvious types of assistance libraries and museums can provide. In Illinois, where I live, IMLS block grants have enabled kids in rural and low-income areas to learn innovative technology skills like 3D modeling. In another take on technology skills, IMLS awarded the Detroit Zoo a grant to train underserved youth in STEM skills.

Books can serve as bridges between worlds, and so can libraries. I once helped obtain a grant for my library from the NEH in the Bridging Cultures: Muslim Voices program.

This provided a selection of books and films by and about Muslims and Islamic culture as well as funds to host educational events like an interfaith Eid al-Adha hosted by the Saudi student club at a Catholic university. Students were able to share their food and traditions with their classmates and teachers. Scholars gave talks on issues the book collection covered.

Even popular culture can emerge from these types of grant programs. A few years back, the NEH Office of Digital Humanities (and later IMLS) funded start-up grants for a small project called Pop Up Archive to preserve and search “culturally significant” audio files.

One of their projects was to automatically transcribe 68,000 digitized items from public broadcasting stations (the funding for the digitization was funded by IMLS), which now are searchable by the public. This type of service was so appealing to Silicon Valley that Apple acquired the project

Cutting funds has real consequences: In 2012, Chicago Public Libraries faced a $7 million budget cut following on several years of reduced funding. It laid off 176 employees and reduced hours to 40 a week by closing two days a week.

Even though the system was able to get back to 48-hour weeks, people can't access computers at a consistent time every day or use branch libraries Sundays.

Occasionally when I meet someone and tell them I am a librarian, they wonder if libraries are necessary in wealthy areas because the people there can buy their own books and internet access, and maybe we don't need libraries in general, because people don’t read books anymore.

It’s not just me — this appears on a list of ten things not to say to library workers at Book Riot.

It's true that wealth can buy books. But many who live in wealthy areas struggle with the high cost of living. Furthermore, equity in access to information and a place to bring communities together is worth funding, no matter its socioeconomics

And while it may be true that our current president is reportedly not big on reading, average Americans still are — the latest data indicates there were an average of 7 items checked out per person annually. We should be focused on getting more people into books (and all the other ways we read these days), not limiting their accessibility.

As long as we have libraries, museums, zoos, and other institutions that allow us to learn, to improve ourselves, and to experience beauty, we'll be better as a nation. Let’s continue to fund them.

Margaret Heller is a librarian at Loyola University Chicago, author of forthcoming book on community and libraries, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.