President Barack Obama reiterated this week his continued support for libraries. He also announced an initiative to increase access to digital books for children across America. As Obama stated:
“America’s librarians connect our kids to the books and learning resources that inspire us to dream big, and ensure that we set off on a lifetime of learning. And right now, not enough kids have access to those vital learning resources.”
The interview was given at a public library in D.C. and the kid given the task of interviewing the president is incredibly cute. Mr. Obama used the event to outline the two initiatives aimed at supporting childhood literacy: The Open eBooks initiative and the ConnectED Library Challenge. Here’s how the Institute of Museum and Library Services summarize of the programs (IMLS provides grants that promote leadership and advancement of museum and library services):
“The Open eBooks initiative will make over $250 million in popular e-books from major publishers available, for free, to children from low-income families via an app. …ConnectED Library Challenge is a commitment by more than 30 communities to work to put a library card into every student’s hand as soon as they enter school.”
It’s nice to know that we have such support from the highest office in the country. It’s a simple principle of library advocacy – or any advocacy, really – that you need to get a really loud voice in your corner, whether that voice be the POTUS or your county’s board of supervisors or a beloved author, such as Stan Lee. But it’s hard to remain optimistic when even these strong voices has failed to turn the funding tides in the past.
As for the initiatives, I think it’s an excellent idea to increase access to books, but many low-income families can’t afford the devices required to read eBooks, nor can they always access the internet to download such books. What it will do is increase literacy in those who do have access, which is an excellent thing. I think the ConnectED Library Challenge is even more important because it serves children more equally. Rich or poor, a library card gives you access to content – whether physical or electronic – as well as access to the high-speed Internet, an important resource especially in low-income rural communities that very often rely on their local public library for their basic internet needs. It is a passion of our library director that every resident in my county get a card. For example, when I taught a high school research class last fall, we brought library cards and applications so that every student would have the card and be able to access the online reference resources in real-time with their very own card.
While these initiatives are steps in the right direction, we still need more advocacy to provide more than just these helpful initiatives. If every student has a library card, for example, those libraries will need funding to support these new users. If every child gets a free eBook, than those children will need help getting that eBook and future eBooks on their devices. We can’t just support one-shot intitaitives. We need continued and sustainable support and funding.
I recently sent letters of support for IMLS funding to my local legislators. Their answer was consistently, “Thanks for the letter. However, in these difficult funding times money must be cut from somewhere.” While I understand that, I also understand that local, state and federal governments are filled with unneccessary bloat. As Judy Blume (speaking of big-name advocates) wrote in an open letter to New York City residents:
“They [NYC Public Libraries] are down hours and about 1,000 staff members,” she writes. “If that funding was restored to the City’s three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget. Seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Libraries provide vital services, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve chosen to work in them. They provide access to resources – both physical and digital – that are available no where else for free. And they provide computers and internet connections that many don’t get at home. In an increasingly digital world, where a computer is necessary to do everything from school homework to applying for a job to getting social security benefits, people from all walks of life and ages can benefit from what libraries provide. And, as we’ve learned from the situations in Ferguson and Baltimore, libraries can even provide a safe place for people to gain reprieve from the terrors of the world. Even though I’ve never faced what those communities have and are going through, I found my own reprieve in libraries, where books do not judge, librarians were always willing to lend a helping hand, and a career that I can be passionate was waiting to provide me daily joy.