President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 federal budget includes major cuts for library budgets, reducing funding from $242 million in 2019 to $23 million and seeking to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Libraries are a crucial part of our society, and the impulse to cut their funding shows a profound lack of understanding of the role they play in modern life.
The budget cuts seem to take libraries to be a relic of the past rather than the pathway to the future. After all, millennials are the generation most likely to use libraries, according to Pew research. If we want students who become educated, employed members of our society, we should be increasing library funding, not cutting it.
Libraries are community centers that the young and old rely on. They’re a noncommercial space where the public can access news and research about both popular subjects and the more arcane. Libraries don’t just lend books; some let users borrow everything from medical supplies to professional clothing for job interviews to musical instruments and works of art.
Cutting back library services, resources, and/or hours, as this budget proposes, could threaten the vital services they provide. Libraries help in combating summer slide, where students lose some of the knowledge they’ve learned over the school year. Programs like the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Summer Camp Challenge, which assists camps in adding 30 minutes of daily reading or literacy activities, tackle this problem. And some LGBTQ teens, who may face intolerance or violence at home and/or school, use libraries as refuges to acquire information and cultural affirmation.
Other vulnerable populations who rely on library services would be impacted by this budget. According to a letter sent by the New Jersey Library Association to state congressional representatives, if the proposed federal budget is enacted, New Jersey State Library’s Talking Book and Braille Center, which assists those who face challenges with reading, would have to be eliminated.
Libraries also help prepare people to take the U.S. citizenship test. Even the Department of Homeland Security’s website states, “Libraries play a critical role in serving immigrant communities.” How will they perform that service without funding? Or perhaps, given this administration’s attitude toward immigrants, that’s exactly the point. By slashing library funding, we are telling these groups, among many others, that their needs do not matter.
While the budget proposal states “it is unlikely the elimination of IMLS would result in the closure of a significant number of libraries and museums,” even a single library closing, or reduced hours or programs, is a huge loss for that community. Local library advocates argue that the impact would be profound.
Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, said the state’s libraries are funded through federal, state, and local governments, as well as fund-raising, endowments, and donations. Buker told me that federal funding will be particularly important because the 2020 census will be online for the first time ever. “Libraries will be vital in connecting individuals experiencing homelessness, immigrants, new citizens, and rural populations with the online [version of the] census,” Buker said. Additionally, she noted, libraries provide internet access and public-access computers, which allow job seekers who don’t have other ways to get online to apply for employment.
Laverne Mann, director of the Cherry Hill Public Library, said her library also relies on federal funding via the New Jersey State Library. “Many of our research databases, for students needing magazine or journal articles, are purchased with this funding. Without it, our 24/7 digital access would be severely restricted.” Mann said that the cost of hardware as well as staffing could be passed on to local taxpayers if federal funds are cut.
The proposed library cuts assume that our society has other ways of delivering these services — but it doesn’t. The cuts are so drastic that they signal a dire message: that we as a country are not willing to invest in a culture that values community, reading, learning, and research.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer based in South Jersey. rachelkramerbussel.com