THE BLOG

Why We Absolutely Need To Care More About Library Funding

05/08/2014 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2014

There's plenty for Republicans and Democrats to hate in the so-called Paul Ryan budget the House passed earlier this month: raising the age requirement for Social Security, privatizing Medicare, cuts to Medicaid, and charging interest on student loans while students are still in school. Even some Republicans thought it went too far--if only for purely strategic reasons. But there's one provision in the budget that seems to have been noticed by librarians: the elimination of an entire government agency--the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which provides funds to libraries across the country that are used to pay for everything from broadband Internet to Braille books for the visually impaired.

I can't say I'm surprised, despite the fact that the IMLS seems a bizarre target for those wanting to cut government spending: The Obama administration requested *only* $226.4 million for the IMLS for fiscal year 2015. To put that figure in perspective, it's 0.0017% of the cost a Navy aircraft carrier currently being built and less than a third of what it cost to occupy Iraq for one day.

The bottom line is libraries and the institutions associated with them are predictable and convenient targets for anyone taking an axe to a government budget. While the services they provide are vital, they're relatively invisible to the powerful.

During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, libraries took hit after hit when local and state politicians revised government budgets--even as library use reached an all-time high. In 2011, California completely eliminated state funding for libraries, which depended on that money for literacy programs, inter-library loan delivery, and, in some cases, even books. In 2012, Louisiana followed suit. Since 2008, New York City public libraries have suffered almost $65 million in budget cuts. The Dallas Public Library's budget has been slashed 50% in the past four years. Even in Massachusetts, a state with a tradition of comparatively generous support for libraries, they've suffered a severe hit. Celeste Bruno of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners told me state funding for libraries is at 1994 levels.

Those cuts have had a crippling impact on public services. The New York Public Library has cancelled hundreds of job hunting and computer classes. Only two of the Dallas Public Library's 26 libraries are open on Sundays, and the system doesn't have the funds to buy many of the books the public wants. As a blogger for the Dallas Observer put it, "What was a quiet place to go on the weekend to find that book you'd been wanting to read is now the place that's locked tight every time you go and doesn't have the book anyway."

But as the reference to cancelled job hunting classes suggests, slashed library budgets mean more than just waiting longer for a copy of The Goldfinch. Libraries are a part of our ever-shrinking social safety net. The library is the place where people who can't afford a home computer and Internet connection can apply for jobs (and more jobs require online applications than you would think: retail clerk, hotel maid, custodian...). It's the place where some of the estimated 60 million Americans who don't know how to use a computer at all can learn to click a mouse and create an email account. Libraries provide a safe space where parents can take their children for activities that don't cost anything. In a library, what services or help you get don't depend on how much money you can spend. It's a place where if you need help all you have to do is ask.

The public library is one of the few places where people are still treated as citizens rather than consumers. My workplace hosts or has hosted book discussion groups, meetings on climate change, yoga classes for children, homework help for teenagers and myriad other activities in which people act as members of a community to make each others lives better in some way.

A library is where people can rebuild their lives. My workplace offers free English classes to new Americans. Newcomers to my town come to the library to search for apartments, look for jobs. After Hurricane Sandy, New York public libraries became places where people flooded out of their homes recharged their phones, applied for FEMA relief, and came looking for (and got) informal therapy.

And it turns out what's good for communities is a great taxpayer investment. A book purchased by a library, as opposed to an individual, will have dozens, if not hundreds, of readers. When a library pays for a PC and a broadband connection, that modest expense provides online access to not just one person or family but to the numerous people who come to the library all day, every day, to use the Internet. A 2007 study found that citizens of San Francisco received $3 worth of materials and services for every dollar spent on the city library system. A 2010 University of Pennsylvania study on the Free Library of Philadelphia's economic impact on the city found that the 979 Philadelphians who found jobs using library resources that year subsequently paid $1.2 million annually in tax revenue.

Ironically, in 2008 Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter ordered the closure of 11 of the Free Library system's 54 branches in response a projected $1 billion five year deficit. Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox ruled the city could not close the branches without the approval of the City Council, which opposed the closings. In her written ruling Fox said closing 11 branch libraries would change "the very foundation of our city."

Nutter later called the attempt to close the libraries "the absolute worst decision" he has ever made.