February 16, 2018

The Politics of Being a Trustee

michaelbursteinheadshot_webNovember’s presidential election led to a surprising result for many. Even among those who voted for the current president-elect, a lot of people did not actually expect him to prevail over a former senator and secretary of state. And almost immediately, everyone from regular people to media pundits were chiming in on what the election will mean for the country.

It made me ponder what the election will mean for the local library and what it means to me in my role as a trustee. I’m very much a Democrat, and I voted for Hillary Clinton. And from what I understand, according to campaign contribution data from the Federal Election Commission, the majority of librarians are Democrats. Most librarians and trustees I’ve met do seem to be more left-leaning, which makes sense to me. Libraries are the ultimate expression of the First Amendment, and freedom of speech is often viewed as a liberal value. Part of that is because organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which tend to take on First Amendment cases, are viewed as liberal or align themselves with traditionally liberal causes. So when someone challenges the presence of a book in a library or on a school reading list, it often seems that a liberal action group fights that ­challenge.

Yet protecting libraries is not simply a liberal position. Many conservatives and Republicans are wary of government overreach, especially as exemplified by laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act that directly affect libraries. Freedom to read what we want to read is an American value that is embraced by people on both sides of the political aisle. The vast majority of Americans, no matter their political persuasion, feel their library is vital to their community.

Trustees often would like to think of libraries as a place where politics doesn’t matter. But simply put, we cannot claim that libraries are apolitical. Indeed, those of us who serve as trustees presumably fight annually to maintain or increase our library’s budget. Funding the library is inherently political.

What it means

So how important was November’s election to our local libraries?

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums, and it depends on congressional funding. With the election of a majority of avowed fiscal conservatives to Congress, it seems uncertain that IMLS funding will be kept at the same levels as it has been before 2017. Indeed, the current administration’s budget has called for the IMLS to be effectively eliminated completely, by reducing its budget to zero. While it seems unlikely that Congress will agree to eliminate the IMLS, it is also clear that the only reason they would oppose this drastic change is if the public makes it clear that this would be unacceptable. We trustees are looking at a more bleak financial landscape than we had been just half a year ago.

If the IMLS is in fact eliminated, though, that would affect state aid to libraries, and we trustees will find ourselves fighting a familiar battle: pushing for level funding of our libraries. Trustees throughout the country might be forced to cut back on hours, services, and collection development. The new administration’s decisions could very easily force us to make these tough decisions of our own in just a year or two.

The new federal government could also pass new laws that would require libraries to keep more detailed records on patron activity and provide it to law enforcement. This is where we as trustees should be even more concerned. The ­Patriot Act had a chilling effect on libraries when it was first being implemented. ­Although many of us have reached a sort of detente with it, that could evaporate with new requests from the FBI. What will we do if a branch of the federal government comes to us demanding patron records? What if browser history or information on when a patron was in the building is wanted? How do we deal with these requests? One useful resource is the American Library Association’s “Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries: Guidelines for the Library and Its Staff.”

We can also continue to appeal to our communities when the results of an election will adversely affect our library. We can go to the voters and remind them that they value not just the library but the privacy the library affords. We can go to our mayors and select­persons, to our state and congressional representatives, and tell them that we as trustees cannot countenance federal overreach on our patrons.

In the end, our duties as trustees are the same no matter what happens in an election: to ensure that the libraries we oversee continue to protect our patrons’ needs, which extend to protecting their privacy as well as providing them with materials.

Let’s get to work.


Michael A. Burstein has been a Trustee at the Public Library of Brookline, MA, since 2004. He chaired the board for two years and is the author of I Remember the Future (Apex Publications, 2008).

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