Do you know where your library’s funding comes from? I have to admit that I don’t. I am aware that state and local taxes pay for my library. I know that reduced funding caused a cut in hours and staff benefits. I know that, over the years, various neighboring towns have stopped paying taxes towards, or discussed stopping paying taxes towards, the library. However, I do not know how library funding is allocated or by whom. And that’s a problem.
It can be easy to see the library as a government institution that has always been there and always will. However, the little that I know of my library’s funding makes it all too clear that, often, libraries have a precarious existence, one maintained by the support, not necessarily of the government, but of the local community members. It is the patrons who have, over the years, donated the time, money, and books to keep the library at its best, even when the tax dollars stopped flowing as generously as they used to. But sometimes even this does not quite seem to be enough.
Government support of the library matters because the government has money and resources that the local community members may not. Libraries, after all, are supposed to be about equal access, about providing everyone with resources and materials, regardless of their income level. But when the government withdraws support, libraries and their community members suffer. Hours are reduced, making it more difficult for people to use library resources. Jobs become part-time, creating high turnover in staff. Materials become scarcer because the library cannot pay for them all. And when the library becomes less frequented due to limited hours and resources, people stop going, giving government leaders an excuse to stop funding altogether.
The town leaders who have stopped paying tax dollars to the library are denying equal access to their residents. Often they justify this decision by claiming that the library is obsolete, that people can just use the Internet. They overlook the fact that not everyone can buy every book, lesson, or video they need. They overlook the fact that some people cannot even afford the Internet. Their decision seems justifiable because they, themselves, do not need the library. Greater inequity is created as a result.
Knowing how your library is funded matters because of decisions like these. Quite often I have seen people ask to apply for a library card, only to be shocked and angry that they are ineligible because their town does not pay taxes for their membership. Understanding that local governments are making these decisions, and not the librarians, can help people advocate for themselves. A concerted effort by the community to petition for renewed membership could be effective. But the mystery surrounding library funding can make it difficult for people to know whom to contact or how to respond.
Even if your town is not considering withdrawing from the library, it could still be beneficial to find out where your library is getting funding from, and how much. Especially because a library can often appear to be doing all right, when in fact its financial situation is not ideal. Asking government leaders for more funding could mean longer hours, more services, and more materials. It could also grant the library some security as they may not have to rely as much on fundraisers each year to supplement their budget.
It can be easy to take libraries for granted, but libraries are truly community institutions that rely upon the communities they serve. Libraries do so much good, from providing Internet access to job seekers and students to providing a safe space for the homeless to helping patrons learn another language. Their value to the community is immeasurable. So why shouldn’t we advocate for them?