On April 1, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) released his budget proposal for the fiscal year 2015. It would cut five trillion dollars from federal balance sheets in the next decade by making significant cuts to spending on initiatives like Medicare and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Among librarians, though, the most controversial cost-saving measure proposed in the Ryan budget might be its elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) entirely, cutting millions in grants to libraries around the country.
The ink was hardly dry on Ryan’s proposal before the American Library Association (ALA) released a statement slamming the notion of cutting the federal government out of the library funding picture, pointing out that as part of its work the libraries, the IMLS partners with a variety of other government agencies, and noting that “…the Institute has been a vital component in facilitating collaboration between federal agencies that relate to library services, such as the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Communication Commission and the Government Printing Office, among others.”
ALA president Barbara Stripling described herself as “shocked and extremely dismayed” by the proposal, which, if it were enacted, could severely hinder the ability of libraries around the country to provide technology resources to patrons by eliminating the grants administered by IMLS under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). “The impact of that funding has been profound in providing access to technology in libraries that absolutely would not have been able to provide that access otherwise,” Stripling told LJ, pointing out that such technology is often used to access government services by patrons who don’t have Internet access in their homes.
John Chrastka, founder of the library political action committee EveryLibrary, echoed that sentiment. “The sequester and other pressures on IMLS have already made federal aid to local libraries scarce,” Chrastka told LJ. “Zeroing out IMLS in the Ryan budget proposal is a bad idea for American society.”
In March of this year, IMLS director Susan Hildreth underlined the importance of the federal government’s role in helping libraries serve their communities. “We are living at a time when the strategic use of resources could not be more important,” Hildreth wrote in the IMLS’ appropriations request for 2015. “IMLS’s role—to provide leadership, funding, data, strategic partnerships, knowledge sharing, and policy analysis—helps libraries and museums improve their services.”
Speaking to Library Journal, IMLS director Susan Hildreth was less surprised than her ALA colleagues, pointing out that this is the third consecutive GOP budget to come out of the House of Representatives that proposed the elimination of IMLS. While she said that the debate over federal funding for libraries is one she expects to continue in Congress, she defended the grants her agency doles out—many of which are matched by state funds—as valuable investments in communities across the country. IMLS grants to states support programs from aggregated buying of electronic resources for libraries throughout state systems to braille services for visually impaired patrons, while other grant programs drive technological innovation and leadership training. “I would focus on the fact that the investments being made create best practices and new service models across the country,” Hilderth told LJ. “It’s a small investment for a big payoff.” Representative Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Funding for the IMLS was mostly flat under President Obama’s 2015 budget proposal, released last month, though funding for LSTA grants was cut by about two million dollars. Observers have pointed out that, like the President’s own budget, Ryan’s proposal is unlikely to be enacted. The federal government is operating through 2015 at funding levels worked out in last December’s compromise between Ryan and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and any changes to those funding levels are unlikely. The proposal may be more of a talking point for fiscal conservatives taking to the campaign trail later this year than a realistic spending plan.
Despite that, though, the proposal still feels like a shot across the bow to Stripling, who told LJ that she is less worried about the proposal itself than she is about the sentiments that underlie it. “I was extremely dismayed that there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of the impact that IMLS has in libraries across the country and on the very citizens our government is there for,” she said.