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.