Why supporting libraries supports communities

Support Libraries. #SaveIMLS.The proposed federal budget for 2017 threatens to significantly cut funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which helps fund a lot of America’s libraries. While public libraries are mainly funded by taxes (the exact logistics of this vary by state), IMLS provides grants that help libraries develop STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programming, purchase equipment, and even provide Internet access to the public. I worry that a lot of the people voting to potentially cut IMLS funding don’t really know what libraries do. Maybe they have an idea in their head from when they went to their local library as a kid and checked out books or got research help they assume Google could handle today. So I thought I’d share some of the things we do every day at my library (and that libraries around the country do) to help our community. Feel free to share these stories with your representatives and encourage them to support IMLS!

First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions. Some representatives argue that the Internet is a luxury. It’s 2017; if you want to search for a job, apply for a job, apply for a higher education program, apply for financial aid, view or print a pay stub, view or print travel documents, pay taxes — basically be a member of society — you need the Internet. And I haven’t even mentioned basic “luxuries” like email, social media, and the wealth of information (and, yes, misinformation) online.

But moving past the basics of providing Internet access to everyone in our community, here are a few other things that happen daily at my library. Many of these are teen-specific, because I’m a teen librarian, but know that libraries are here for everyone of every age, gender, race, religion, and ability.

Kids and teens have a place to be and things to do after school. Our community has a lot of latch key kids — kids whose parents/guardians work during the after-school hours. Many of these kids are also in charge of younger siblings/cousins. The library gives them a place to hang out and unwind, books to read for fun, computers to do their homework or play games on. It has study rooms for those working on group projects. It has a children’s department and a designated teen room where kids and teens can spend time with friends their age and meet new friends.

Youth can develop leadership skills. One of my favorite moments as a teen librarian was watching a few of the teens who come to library programs regularly take ownership of an event. I knew almost nothing about Kendama at the start of April, other than my teens were really into it, and they wanted to have a tournament at the library. Fortunately, the teens helped me a lot with planning this event, coming up with the trick lists themselves, recommending prizes for each division, and even helping to judge the tournament. Not only did those who planned the event benefit; the day of, lots of teens were helping each other learn new tricks between heats, and the parents and grandparents who came to watch got to see what their kids were passionate about.

Students can do schoolwork. I have lost count of how many students of all ages (including scores of adults taking online classes) I’ve helped with everything from finding information for research papers to formatting their paper in Microsoft Word to attaching those papers to emails or uploading them to Blackboard. Could they do this work elsewhere? Maybe. Some may not have the research skills to find the information without a librarian’s help yet. Many do not have Internet access at home, so even if they typed their papers at home, they would need to come to the library to do research and to submit their papers electronically. Some may not have a home computer on which to type their papers.

Teens have a safe place to talk about tough topics. Teen Game Nights at my library always contain fascinating conversations. We’ve had political debates over Apples to Apples, discussions of bullying and LGBTQIAP+ identities, conversations about racism and sexism and mental health. Sometimes teens have questions I can answer, like “Is Russia a democracy?”; sometimes it’s harder, like “How old do you have to be to know if you’re transgender?” or “What do I do if my girlfriend’s parents say she’s too young to date?” Sometimes it’s not my job to have the answers; it’s my job to listen and let the teens know someone cares about them, is interested in the things they’re interested in, and is rooting for them to succeed. I know not all my teens will talk to me about the things that are bothering them, but I’d like to think they all know they can talk to me. Because while many of them have parents or grandparents or older siblings they can talk to, not all of them do.

People get free technology help. This afternoon, three teens came in distraught, looking for their lost dog. They wanted to make a flyer with pictures of the missing pet. They had no idea where to start; I showed them how to make a flyer in Publisher, how to upload pictures of the dog from their phone, and how to print the flyers. Could they have done this elsewhere? Perhaps a copy shop could have helped them, but they would have charged a lot more than ten cents per copy.

People can improve their lives. Whether this means checking out a book on eating healthier, borrowing an exercise DVD, or using one of our community meeting rooms to hold a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, people’s lives change every day at the library.

I could keep going, but this post is already longer than most. If you care about libraries and building strong communities, please ask your representatives to support IMLS. And if you have your own library stories, please share in the comments!

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