Libraries: Protectors of the Common Good

Just this past week, my colleagues and I spent three days training 100 librarians from north Texas to be public innovators as part of a partnership with the Texas Library and Archives Commission. By the end of May, we’ll train upwards of 300 librarians statewide. These librarians – already doing important work in their communities – are now equipped to go even broader and deeper in their community efforts. As I said to these librarians last week, I am convinced that at no other point in my lifetime have communities needed libraries more than they do now. So why then are they under assault? And where is our vocal, vigorous support for them? Across the country, library funding is being mercilessly cut.

In Kentucky many counties are looking at 60%–70% cuts and in Miami-Dade, Florida there is a $20 million budget deficit for the 2015 fiscal year to fund the county’s 49 branches. And in New Jersey, Governor Christie recommended the funding levels for library programs in the 2015 State Budget remain as it was in 2011.  Overall, even with signs of economic recovery, many libraries across the country continue to be faced with statewide budget cuts, branch closings, and limitations in maintaining federal funding.  These cuts lead to shorter hours, fewer services and diminished positive effects on communities and children.

Sadly, it seems many political leaders view libraries as a “nice” community amenity that is to be supported only when we can afford it. But that’s a dangerous march of folly. The reality is that libraries are an essential part of communities we can’t afford to lose.

I know making this case may sound quaint. No doubt many of us have a happy picture in our mind of the smiling librarian reading to us as children or helping us find a book deep in the stacks. But there’s nothing nostalgic or soft-hearted about the case to be made for libraries. There are more than 15,000 public libraries in the U.S., and public opinion surveys consistently show that they’re the most trusted of community institutions, second only to local police departments.

At a time in our society when we can be consumed about our own good, we need libraries as front-line creators of the common good. Indeed libraries are central to us making community a common enterprise again – where we care about the health of our community, where we innovate to create new pathways forward, and where people have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. Libraries have the potential to span boundaries by bringing people and groups together across dividing lines and helping to address common challenges in a way that strengthens the civic and social fabric of our communities.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the public library provides financial literacy classes to individuals so they and their families can become economically self-sufficient and have a real shot at the American Dream. In Burlington, KY, the library has created a EARN SPEND SAVE program to engages kids, teens and adults with a series of year-long workshops with practical financial programs.  The Spartanburg, S.C., library has a new center for local teens where after school they do their homework, learn new skills and hang out, all safe and supervised and off the streets.

In Spokane, Wash., the county library has become a convener by bringing local residents together to talk about their shared aspirations for their communities and helping people find ways to act on those aspirations; its efforts are combating the divisive and often toxic public discourse we too often experience in public life and politics nowadays. And in Washington, D.C. the new library director envisions the public library being a place for workplace innovation, meant to facilitate the creative economy at all levels.

At a time when so many organizations and groups have turned inward to protect their own good – their fund-raising, turf, and at times overly narrow agendas – libraries are a uniquely trusted local institution that has as its mission the health and vitality of the communities it serves.

They are one of the last protectors of the common good.

That’s why I’m placing my bets on libraries. In addition to the work in Texas, we also have been working with libraries from across the country over the past two years in a partnership with the American Library Association, supported in part by a grant from the Gates Foundation. And I’ve had the good fortune to speak at scores of state library association and other conferences from New Jersey to Idaho, Michigan to Maine.

Now is not the time to cut support for libraries. It should be vastly increased. This is not some feel-good cause harkening us back to a bygone era; rather it is a hard-headed, strategic investment in the common good. People want to restore their faith that we can come together and get things done; that we can produce a sense of possibility and hope in our communities for all people. Libraries are essential in helping us build this new path.