“Having fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card.”
—Arthur the Aardvark
If you are reading this article, you are literate—a privilege that is easy to take for granted, yet crucial for all facets of life, from working to voting to advocating for societal change. According to a 2011 Department of Education study, one in seven adults, or thirty-two million Americans, demonstrated below basic literacy skills, proving that literacy in the United States is at crisis levels. While this situation calls for broad systemic change, one avenue for improving literacy rates can be found in our own backyards in the form of libraries. The more libraries a state has, the lower illiteracy rates are; Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, states with the highest library density, also have the smallest number of adults lacking basic literacy skills.
Beyond their correlation with literacy, libraries hold myriad benefits for the communities they serve. For unemployed patrons, library classes can offer marketable skills and resume guidance, while free internet access allows for enhanced job-searching options and interaction with employers. Among working patrons, libraries particularly benefit women, who are significantly more likely than men to visit their branch. And far from becoming obsolete in a digital world, libraries are more crucial than ever, as they are dedicated to giving patrons of all ages the skills needed to thrive in the global information age.
Yet funding for libraries is increasingly in danger. Federal support has been weakening since 2011; between then and 2016, thirty-seven states experienced a decrease in library funding. In March of this year, the Trump administration released its federal budget proposal for FY2020, which recommended eliminating the main source of federal support for museums and libraries, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. With sweeping change on the horizon, supporting one’s local library may seem like a daunting task. Luckily, advocacy options are open for library lovers of all ages and desired levels of involvement.
Ways to Take Action
Become a Friend or Trustee
Many libraries have a devoted group serving as a link between the institution and the community: the Library Friends, whose functions can include holding fundraisers, attending legislative meetings, liaising with local politicians, and simply spreading the word about libraries and literacy. Inquire with your local librarian to find out if you can join an existing Friends group, and if not, launch your own. For Friends looking to up their financial and time commitments, becoming a Library Trustee might be the appropriate move. Trustees hold sway over library governance and work to set policy, as well as meeting with the Friends group via a designated liaison.
Support Your School Library
While all libraries encourage growth and learning, school libraries hold specific benefits. Research shows that children in schools with effective library programs learn more, earn better grades, and reap higher test scores than their peers who lack similar resources. Nevertheless, there are nearly 9,000 public schools nationwide without a library, and nearly 17,000 without a state-certified school librarian on staff. If you discover such a situation at your child’s school, take action: attend school board meetings, talk to other parents, pen an op-ed for your local newspaper, or meet with school officials to discuss the importance of a strong school library program.
Encourage Creativity and Learning
Looking to contribute to your library in the most hands-on way possible? Consider sharing your skills and knowledge by teaching a class, or volunteer to help with library courses already on offer. If your expertise is in art and crafting, look into helping your library establish a makerspace—a collaborative zone where library patrons can gather to work on DIY projects, share ideas, and take advantage of community resources. A makerspace can be ideal for encouraging education through play at a school library, or can draw in crowds of all ages at a larger public library. Either way, initiatives such as makerspaces and classes can allow libraries to engage members of the community who might not otherwise have visited their branch.
Be a Model Patron
Finally, use your local library often! If libraries can demonstrate that they are in high demand, they are more likely to receive funding, so be sure to apply for a library card, check out and request books, and sign up for events. Feel free to carry out a mountain of reading material every time you visit, too: The more books you borrow, the more your library can purchase for its collection. With sustained effort from library-lovers across the country, we can look forward to a day when libraries are well-funded and supported on both the legislative and local levels—and to a world in which every adult and child has the literacy skills to enjoy libraries and the wonderful world of books within.