Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Libraries in limbo

By
opinions editor
Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earlier this month, Ivanka Trump came under fire from an unlikely source: Librarians across the country took to Twitter to criticize her for a tweet commemorating National Library Week. The first daughter wrote that, “This #NationalLibraryWeek, we honor our libraries and librarians for opening our eyes to the world of knowledge, learning and reading!” It seemed like a harmless enough post — until people realized that it came on the heels of President Trump’s proposal to dramatically slash funding to public libraries.

There are so many concerning elements in Trump’s proposed budget — notably the terrifying funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and a simultaneous increase in defense spending — that many other reductions have flown under the radar. But as observers are increasingly pointing out, the Trump administration isn’t just going after oversight agencies like the EPA; it is also brazenly targeting agencies that focus on culture. In fact, Trump’s budget proposes to completely eliminate funding for four independent cultural agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The IMLS is a 20-year old agency that provides support to 35,000 museums and 123,000 libraries across the country. Of its $230 million budget, $214 million is generally funneled directly to state and local libraries. Because the IMLS provides them with so much technical and financial support, thousands of libraries and their members will be harmed if the agency’s funding is dissolved.

Now, it should come as no surprise that Trump wants to decrease funding for libraries. In stark contrast to former President Barack Obama — who was often referred to as the “reader-in-chief” and regularly published reading lists to inspire admirers like me  — Trump has so far given no indication that he has ever picked up a book for leisure. The one book Trump recently claimed to have read and liked? “Reasons to Vote for Democrats” by Michael J. Knowles, a 256-page satirical book mostly filled with blank pages.

Regardless of Trump’s personal reading habits, the debate over federal funding to libraries is a perennial one. Many Republican lawmakers have previously tried to roll back funding to agencies like the IMLS, including U.S. Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, R-WI, in 2015. But the scale of Trump’s proposal is unprecedented: No previous president has tried to get rid of funding for the agency altogether.

Of course, given the Trump administration’s myriad troubling policy proposals, the funding cuts to libraries are understandably low on many Americans’ list of priorities. Yet this move raises concerns regarding how the Trump administration views the importance of community spaces, arts and education.

In a world where American children spend more time sitting in front of a screen than with books, libraries are receiving fewer visitors by the year. But they still serve an important purpose in communities across the country. They play a critical role in the education system, allowing students of all ages and backgrounds to gain access to a range of resources — not just books, but also computers, tablets and information tools like research databases. Crucially, they address the needs of low-income families, providing a more level playing field for those who would not otherwise have access to many books and educational materials. They can also instill a lifelong love of books in young children — a trait that is associated with higher levels of empathy and lower levels of stress, among other indicators.

And the benefits of libraries extend beyond access to books and resources. They are also community-building hubs, offering a central public space for citizens to congregate, discuss and engage with each other. Libraries have even been known to build civic engagement by providing visitors with the tools to make more informed voting decisions and learn more about policies that affect them. For all of these reasons and more, public libraries still merit at least some federal funding.

Trump’s budget cuts will stack the odds against public libraries, many of which are already struggling and rely on federal assistance. The Providence Public Library is no exception: It has received numerous grants from the IMLS — most recently a $530,000 grant last year — to implement community programs for teen workforce development and digital literacy. While the Providence Public Library does have other sources of funding, it will still have to make up for the imminent drop in federal grants. I only hope it can move forward with its programs and expansion plans despite the setback.

I realize that, with all of Trump’s reckless policy decisions in recent months, the rollback of federal assistance to public libraries isn’t the most pressing or alarming of issues. But as someone who grew up relying on public libraries for my daily intake of books, I am genuinely horrified at the prospect of a world where another child might not have the same opportunity.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.