What is “The Breakfast Club’s” timeless story without a school library? Who is Hermoine Granger without the magical stacks of books in the Hogwarts library? Where would “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” Paul Varjak tell Holly Golighty that he loves her — if not in the New York Public Library?
Where does a community gather safely, find free and necessary resources, preserve the heart of a culture — without a library?
You guessed it: I’m on my Dewey Decimal System soapbox.
Libraries are at the crux of both social and physical American infrastructure; a crossroads where intellect and information meet space and access, a place where social services are actualized, and people are put above profit.
However, our libraries are in dire need of funding, support, and maintenance.
How do libraries make money?
Most of us are aware that the literary world has changed dramatically in recent years, as the Amazon monopoly rears its many heads: bookselling, publishing, reading device development, and audiobook sales among them. Both independent booksellers and libraries have been impacted, even so far that books published under Amazon are not sold to libraries for folks to read for free.
So, how do libraries even make money to operate?
Public libraries are supported with state tax revenues, just like your local public school or road projects. Treated as a public good, libraries get a portion of this revenue to maintain their operations. However, this portion is often a very small percentage of the total tax revenue a state sees every year.
For example, the Ohio Public Library reported that they received less than 1 percent of Ohio’s state tax revenue in 2020 (.53 percent, to be exact). In fact, the amount they received from the state was less than half of their total funding revenue.
This funding is crucial for more than just buying new books, but the upkeep of buildings, paying staff livable wages, providing ongoing community support and programming, and funding archival research and projects. The San Diego Library Master Plan framework outlines a $50 million library maintenance backlog.
This deficit leaves many public library boards to do what they do best: get creative.
Many libraries will keep all operations free to patrons, but will charge late fees or book fines. This practice, however, is becoming less common, as libraries work to best serve low-income communities.
Libraries also offer other “paid-for” services, as well as read-a-thon events, summer camps, book signings, book sales, or rentable spaces like conference rooms.
Strategic partnerships and corporate sponsorships also allow libraries to raise funds, but as staff and board members struggle to maintain the integrity of their library systems, the clear solution altogether is to prioritize government funding for libraries.
How many libraries are in the United States?
There are over 16,000 public libraries in the United States, according to the American Library Association.
These statistics indicate that, while libraries are plentiful (although perhaps not always spread out equitably), they are not prioritized or funded in the same way as other countries.
This begs the question: do Americans truly not value their libraries, or do we just not know why they are so important?
5 Reasons Libraries Are Important
1. Libraries support educational opportunities
Libraries are commonly considered educational institutions, providing students and researchers the tools and resources they need to learn and study.
In fact, libraries have long been dubbed “the people’s university,” for their equitable nature, bringing information and education to all people, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Many of us envision our libraries full of books, encyclopedias, computers, and workspaces, but what we often neglect to include in that description is offerings like film and music, access to other learning avenues like local zoos or botanical gardens, 3D printers, WiFi hotspot lending programs, art lending programs, recording studios, or even blood pressure monitors.
Libraries are not just spaces to borrow creative tools, but to make one’s own. Many institutions will hold writing workshops or other community events to teach patrons new skills or develop work in collaboration with other community members. Libraries have become spaces for people to set up a new podcast, write a zine, practice music, and more.
Like the beloved cartoon aardvark Arthur Read says: “having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card.”
Educational opportunities also manifest through the encouragement of civil discourse and dialogue. The Human Library project, developed in Denmark, is an initiative that “publishes people as open books” and allows members of the public to meet and communicate with people outside of their communities.
This initiative has gone global, and many American libraries participate in this social program to keep people from judging each other “by their covers.”
Libraries are also increasingly expanding access to digital resources. As of 2018, over 90 percent of libraries offered digital loans, and resources like Libby, OverDrive, and Hoopla make these loans even more accessible.
Although many of us cherish the “old book smell” of a historical library setting, it’s valuable to keep in mind that libraries are continuously evolving to meet the needs of learners of all backgrounds.
2. Libraries preserve cultural heritage and history
Speaking of people from all walks of life, libraries play a key role in preserving the cultural heritage and history of their communities.
While not all libraries have archival services, those with professional archivists give patrons access to valuable historical stories and records that add tremendous value and context to their people.
Organized archives allow people to research genealogy and immigration history, do environmental research, find maps, digitize records, and more.
The National Archives funds a number of archival research projects across the country.
3. Libraries provide access to necessary resources for marginalized communities
Access to archival resources is only a small portion of what libraries do for marginalized communities. Libraries have long been institutions for social good, gathering members of a community together to fill a need or find solutions.
From American Sign Language and English As A Second Language courses, to citizenship information, or an anti-prom that welcomes LBGTQ+ high schoolers, libraries serve as gateways to new and welcoming communities and give marginalized folks the tools they need to become empowered.
Resources often extend beyond educational materials and into direct action, as libraries across the country host free library lunches for kids in need, farmer’s markets, seed lending programs, and even tool lending libraries, to give patrons access to items they otherwise may not be able to afford.
Youth are also able to utilize libraries in creative ways, benefiting from tutoring services, afterschool programming, homework help, outdoor learning initiatives, and summer reading programs.
Libraries are community-centered in a way few other institutions are; helping folks rebuild after disaster, feed their families, start a business, or simply feel seen and included for who they are.
4. Libraries are integral to the political and social life of a community
Public life and political discourse has long been a value of America’s libraries, as these institutions proudly advocate against banned books, and develop special collections to support niche groups. Libraries are hubs for democratic debate, social justice, and community action.
For example, an initiative in Baltimore aims to raise collective consciousness to decrease crime in the area. Librarians are training to learn de-escalation practices as a non-police avenue to reduce violence, aiming to train all Baltimore city employees with the same tools. This, along with avenues like the Baltimore Community Mediation Center for community members to work through disputes, serve as a case study for the social and political landscape libraries offer.
Libraries are also used as polling places or ballot drop-off locations during elections, and often offer voting guides or public debates and forums, encouraging civic engagement.
Students may participate in workshops or mock elections, and many public libraries hold voter registration events for community members. The American Library Association says: “informed citizens are engaged voters.”
5. Libraries are a safe and reliable space for all
While we’ve examined how libraries offer specific resources and offerings, one of the most valuable things libraries contribute to their communities is space.
While libraries are not substitutes for shelters, counseling centers, or long-term systemic solutions to homelessness, they are vital to public health and safety, offering people experiencing homelessness a safe and dignified space throughout the day.
Libraries are also integral for unhoused folks to find empowerment, using computers to apply for jobs and seek further assistance. While some folks may be unable to get a library card due to a lack of a permanent address, more resources are becoming widely available as public libraries work on the frontlines of the housing crisis.
In addition to serving patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness, libraries are simply safe and meaningful spaces for all members of the community.
Whether a library boasts grand architecture or modest design, the physical space of a library has a way of communicating our underlying values, The Public Library Association suggests: that libraries, information, and shared community space matter.