Among the disappeared in Donald Trump’s fiscal-year 2018 budget was something most of us didn’t notice at first: the dissolution of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Take that away and virtually all federal support for public libraries disappears. While the institute doesn’t represent a massive amount of money—by one accounting, its $230 million was 0.006 percent of the federal budget in 2016—it has been crucial for sustaining libraries, especially those in struggling urban neighborhoods and rural areas.
I was living in one of those hardscrabble outposts—Johnsburg, New York—when the monthly bookmobile ceased to operate. The nearest library was at least an hour away, and that was when the roads were clear. Books, already a limited resource, became even scarcer. But when the town board proposed a small tax increase to fund a local library, residents balked. This was one of the poorest regions in New York State, and people were already living at the margins. A library was a luxury. What about the frost heaves and potholes? What about the rusted fire truck?
A few years later, the town board came up with a new idea, spurred by one of its members, a man who worked at the lumberyard during the week and was a lay minister on weekends. Digging deep, the board found $15,000 in the town budget and assigned me and two retirees to figure out how to turn it into a library.
Seventy-seven years after Andrew Carnegie built his last public library, our town opened its first. We had 3,239 books, all on loan from the regional library consortium; a rack of movies purchased when the local video store went bust; tables and chairs culled from discards we found in the town shed; and a librarian who, much like that $15,000—which also had to cover his salary—seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. We ordered 500 library cards, expecting to go through them in about a year. Three weeks after we opened, we had to order 500 more.
Six months and an additional 500 cards later, we went back to the board to request more money. The Town of Johnsburg Library was thriving, but that was a big ask, so we went in with pages of testimonials and a stack of statistics. We planned to tell the board how Head Start brought its preschoolers to story hour, how high-school students were using the library as a homework hub, and how people were gathering to watch movies and talk about them afterward. But our preparations turned out to be unnecessary: We hadn’t even presented our case when the board voted—unanimously—to double our budget. “You don’t need to say anything,” the town supervisor told us. “We can see it for ourselves. The library is the best thing that has happened to this town.”
Two years ago, our formerly little library celebrated its 20th anniversary. Its one room is now three. Its library cards are computerized. It has over 40,000 items in its collection. In 2015, the last year for which I could find statistics, there were close to 30,000 library visits. That’s more than 10 trips for every person in town. There were 130 events—lectures, discussions, play readings, art shows. There’s a book group, fast Internet, and a weekly knitting club.
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It’s a quaint image, that intergenerational crew—mostly women—sitting amid the books and computers, needles clacking, sharing patterns, trading stories. But when the Trump administration looks in on the scene, it’s the metaphor they see, and it scares them. Libraries knit individuals into communities. They are the shared space where anyone and everyone belongs. They are the commons that persist even after the town green gets paved over and schools are regionalized and Main Street is boarded up. Libraries are not only built on the open and egalitarian promises of democracy; they exist to promote them. As Frederick Stielow wrote in Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty, “At the local level, [the public library] would evolve into the most visible civic statement and monument to a democratic way of life. Internationally, the concept of the American library would come to serve as a powerful cultural symbol and visible goal for all democratic societies.” No wonder the Trump administration would like to shutter them.
Ironically, it was Carnegie, one of the richest people in the world, who put the “public” in “public library.” Prohibited from using a local library when he was a young workingman because he couldn’t afford its fee—like other libraries, this one was modeled on Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia “public” library, which operated on a subscription basis—Carnegie argued in a letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch that libraries should be open to all comers irrespective of means. You can hear this philosophy echoed in the Public Library Association’s statement of principles, written in 1982, one year shy of the centennial of Carnegie’s first public library (he’d go on to fund 2,508 more): “Public libraries freely offer access to their collections and services to all members of the community without regard to race, citizenship, age, education level, economic status or any other qualification or condition.” And, the statement continues, “Free access to ideas and information, a prerequisite to the existence of a responsible citizenship, is as fundamental to America as are the principles of freedom, equality and individual rights…. Public libraries continue to be of enduring importance to the maintenance of our free democratic society. There is no comparable institution in American life.”
Let me repeat: Of course the Trump administration is gunning for them.
In my new novel, there’s a scene in which a group of newly arrived immigrants are told by a librarian that they can take as many books as they’d like for free, and it confirms everything they’ve heard about America: that it’s the land of abundance and opportunity. I wrote the book before Trump was elected, and before we watched ICE staging raids at places where immigrants are likely to congregate, and before government agents started boarding trains and buses demanding to see travelers’ “papers,” and before the Arlington Heights library in suburban Chicago was forced to cancel an immigrant-rights workshop after receiving hate calls and threats of ICE arrests. (So far there have not been any ICE raids in libraries, but libraries are not legally protected from the agency’s reach, so it is not out of the question.)
Here’s another “before”: Before the hate calls and the threats, this same library, like many others, had for years conducted workshops for immigrants without incident. Much like putting books in the hands of early readers and having a ready supply of best sellers available, holding workshops for immigrants was understood to be simply part of the library’s mission. Still, presciently, in 2007 the American Library Association codified its commitment to new and aspiring Americans, adopting a resolution that pledged equal access to libraries and their services to everyone, regardless of nationality, residency, or immigration status. Additionally, in the past year, the ALA has been working with the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois on Project Welcome, helping refugees and asylum seekers negotiate the resettlement and immigration process.
If, at this moment in time, these activities make librarians seem like radicals, it is only because democracy itself has come to be seen, in some quarters, as radical. Somehow, those who reside there fail to grasp that the democratic principles upon which this country was built are foundational—which is to say, they are as radical as poured concrete. (Maybe those folks should have spent more time in the library.) Yet as every dictator, tyrant, despot, and authoritarian well knows, the dissemination of knowledge portends their downfall.
Librarians provide any of us, and all of us, with the raw materials of civic education. That, historically, has been their contribution to the democratic project, and remains so. It’s why libraries have always taught literacy, conducted citizenship classes, and, more recently, worked to bridge the digital divide between those who have computers and Internet access and those who do not. And it’s why the ALA’s stated policy is that libraries must “recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.”
It is also why libraries have always maintained collections that offer competing points of view. At a time when social media so effectively promotes false narratives and propaganda disguised as legitimate news, the library is a trusted repository of the truth. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, “There is…a growing sense that libraries can help people decide what information they can trust: 37% of Americans feel that public libraries contribute ‘a lot’ in this regard, a 13-point increase from a survey conducted at a similar point in 2015.”
So here we are. A 2018 budget was finally passed, and though Congress rejected the president’s attempt to dismantle the Institute of Museum and Library Services and defund public libraries, Trump has come back with his budget for fiscal year 2019, which again targets the institute and other federal programs that support libraries. As you remain vigilant to this and other attacks on the commons, keep these words of Andrew Carnegie’s in mind: ”A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never-failing spring in the desert.”