20 candidates. 4 debates. 0 talk of libraries.

Why libraries should be on everyone’s lips during discussions about education

The Democratic presidential candidates covered a lot of rocky ground during their June and July debates. In all the back and forth, they did not once mention libraries. Not that I expected them to, but there were many reasons why they could have, especially when the talk turned to education.

Candidates spoke at length about free college and the need for job training programs. While libraries are not the same as formal schools, they often function as a free alternative to college for people of limited means. Public library users have known for years that the library is where you go to educate yourself when you have no money. In a 2009 interview, outspoken library advocate Ray Bradbury talked about the role of libraries in his life during the Great Depression:

“Libraries raised me…I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years” (Steinhauer, 2009)

In her TEDx talk, “Trust Your Struggle,” CNN reporter Zain Asher (2015) recalled how she used library resources to prepare for work as an international business correspondent:

“Every weekend, I went to the library. One weekend, I’d study stocks. The next weekend, I’d study bonds; the next weekend, derivatives; the next weekend, mergers and acquisitions, teaching myself. And, in fact, the librarians on 33rd and Madison in New York got to know me very well because, oftentimes, I’d be the last person to leave.”

There is a reason why the library is called the “poor man’s university.” You can go to a library and get a book on just about anything. And when you’re done with your book, you can take a class. Library workers teach people to read, use databases, prepare resumes, conduct research, and code, among many, many other things. They also maintain Makerspaces where people can practice building, design, and engineering skills.

In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey of 1,601 Americans, one third of those polled thought that a public library shutdown would have a “major impact” on them and their families, while two thirds thought it would have a “major impact” on their communities (Horrigan, 2016).  According to the American Library Association, “[m]ore than 60 education and library research studies have produced clear evidence that school library programs staffed by qualified school librarians have a positive impact on student academic achievement” (“School Libraries,” 2019).

President Trump has, for three years in a row, proposed the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Albanese, 2019). This proposal is highly concerning in light of libraries’ reliance on federal government support and the fact that so many states have made substantial cuts to library funding in recent years. To quote the Florida Library Association’s former president Elana Karshmer (n.d.): “If IMLS is eliminated, libraries nationwide will suffer, causing financial devastation to institutions that have already been cut to the bone.”

Fortunately, Congress has voted to maintain and even increase federal funding for libraries over the past two years (Albanese, 2019). Still, it would be good to hear Democratic candidates acknowledge the current administration’s stance on library funding and the crucial role of libraries in education. It would serve as a reminder to all that the survival of libraries cannot and should not be taken for granted.

Wooden octagon in center of large library; opposite each corner, a row of desks full of people sitting side by side

Related post: Fighting for our libraries


Albanese, A. (2019, March 11). In FY2020 budget proposal, Trump renews bid to end federal library funding. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/79496-in-fy2020-budget-proposal-trump-renews-bid-to-end-to-federal-library-funding.html

Asher, Z. (2015, January 12). Trust your struggle [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT2XlI8oeh0

Horrigan, J. (2016, September 9). Libraries 2016: Trends in visiting public libraries have steadied, and many Americans have high expectations for what their local libraries should offer. Pew Research Center (Internet & Technology). Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/09/libraries-2016/

Karshmer, E. (n.d.). [Letter]. Retrieved from https://www.flalib.org/imls-elimination

“School Libraries.” (2019, March 24). (American Library Association). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/state-americas-libraries-report-2019/school-libraries (Accessed August 6, 2019) Document ID: f058fa46-c89c-4e08-a73b-bf642f04635b 

Steinhauer, J. (2009, June 19). A literary legend fights for a local library. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/20/us/20ventura.html


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