Over the past several weeks, decision-makers inside of the Capital Beltway in Washington, DC, have turned their attention to the federal budgeting process for FY 2015.President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have released starkly different visions for what our nation should be spending money on.
Over the course of my life, I have always tried to take a balanced, more moderate perspective on prevailing issues of the day. I count many federal, state, and local elected officials—from both sides of the aisle—as friends and consider them to be dedicated public servants. However, when reviewing the budget proposal prepared by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), it has become impossible to stay quiet and unassuming.
The Ryan budget blueprint proposes the complete elimination of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).This agency is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. Its marquee program, grants issued under the Library Services Technology Act (LSTA), is available to the nation’s nearly 9,000 library systems, so as to support the range of services offered by these important community anchors. In contrast, the Obama Administration has proposed overall level funding for IMLS, and a modest 1.5 percent cut to LSTA grant funding.
Representative Ryan justifies this draconian approach by saying that the services offered by IMLS are “not a core federal responsibility. This function can be funded at the state and local level and augmented significantly by charitable contributions from the private sector.” Unfortunately, this is so much easier said than done. In my experience as a member of my local library board of trustees, I can point out counties throughout my home state of Maryland that were forced to make significant reductions to the level of local funding in support of libraries. More cuts due to the elimination of federal funding simply cannot be absorbed by local governments already reeling from the effects of the Great Recession.
On the other hand, I also serve as the head of my library system’s charitable foundation. Since 1998, our organization has been ahead of the curve, at least in terms of part of Paul Ryan’s advice on libraries. We have raised significant sums from individuals and businesses in support of the Baltimore County (MD) Public Library. However, so many of our donors want assurances that their contributions to us will not make local elected officials feel complacent, thinking that they could in turn reduce public support for libraries, given our outside support. Thankfully, Baltimore County executives and county council members over the years have recognized that outside support can only be garnered when appropriate public investment is present.
What is most perplexing about Mr. Ryan’s lack of support for the work of libraries comes from the fact that the general public—including residents living in his home state of Wisconsin—continue to be avid library users. In mid-March, in conjunction with the 2014 Public Library Association conference, the Pew Research Center released the latest installment of its ongoing study of Americans and their relationship to libraries. The most relevant statistic for me was the following observation made within the Pew Report:
“Public library users and proponents are not a niche group: 30% of Americans ages 16 and older are highly engaged with public libraries, and an additional 39% fall into medium engagement categories.”
Closer to home, at least for Congressman Ryan, Wisconsin residents also seem to place a much higher value on libraries than does one of their home-state politicians. As part of her organization’s response to the Ryan proposal, American Library Association President Barbara Stripling offered these interesting observations.
- Not far from Representative Ryan’s district office, over 716,000 visitors used the Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, WI, to access library computers and research databases, check out books and receive job training in 2013.
- Over 65 percent of Wisconsin libraries report that they are the only free access point to Internet in their communities.
- During the current federal fiscal year, over $2.8 million in grants were provided to Wisconsin libraries through the LSTA program.
- The state of Wisconsin reported that more than 215,000 children participated in summer reading programs in state public libraries.
I am truly puzzled as to why Congressman Ryan and his proposed FY 15 budget blueprint seem to ignore an institution that has such obvious and substantial support among the constituents he seeks to serve. Many Members of Congress, of all political persuasions, have taken issue with various aspects of the Ryan budget proposal. The response from Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky seems particularly appropriate to me. She told the National Journal that “there could not be a starker contrast between the national Republican Party’s priorities and the priorities of the American people. There is a better way forward to create opportunity and an economy that works for everyone through investments in education, job creation, clean energy, health care and retirement security.”
I firmly believe that moderate voices within both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Congress are capable of identifying a sensible way forward—one that recognizes the value of future investments in our nation’s libraries. Local public services—be they libraries, schools, public safety, or transportation—distinctly benefit from sufficient federal funding. Our leaders in Washington, DC, need to hear just how much funding for libraries really means to America.