by Jill Fuller, Marketing & Communication Coordinator
Because you shouldn’t have to buy a coffee to get free Wi-Fi. Because learning to read starts before kindergarten. Because job applications are online now. Because everyone needs to feel like they belong.
“Why do we need libraries?” This question gets tossed around from time to time now that we’ve entered an Information Age dominated by Google searches and social media sharing. It’s a straightforward question, but one with a multitude of answers, from “Because 1 in 5 Wisconsin residents have limited access to broadband,” to “Because I need help figuring out how to use my Kindle.” From job training to memory screenings to basic access to books and movies, libraries provide quite the bang for your buck. When you walk into the library, you can actually see your tax dollars at work. 29 million people visited Wisconsin’s 382 public libraries in 2015. In one year, libraries loaned out almost 55 million items, while over 5 million people used library public computers. These aren’t just statistics. Every person served and service provided directly contributes to the strengthening and growth of our local economies and communities. For every $1.00 invested in Wisconsin libraries, over $4.00 returns to your community, according to an economic impact study done by NorthStar Economics. That’s quite a return on investment.
Yet these numbers may dip drastically in the years to come. Libraries across the nation are in danger of losing virtually all of the funding they receive from the federal government, as the new federal budget proposal seeks to eliminate a program called the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Although IMLS makes up less than 1% of the federal budget, it constitutes a significant portion of library funding in our state. Over $2.5 million came to Wisconsin from IMLS last year; those funds help pay for technology initiatives, individual library projects, and statewide online resources. Wisconsin’s Digital Library, a collection of ebooks and digital audiobooks, is partly funded with IMLS dollars. Throughout Wisconsin, IMLS grants have been used to meet the needs of refugees, students living in poverty, the homeless, non-English speakers, and Native populations.
IMLS is at work directly within your county too. With IMLS funds, nine libraries in Waukesha County installed hearing loops in their meeting rooms and front desks for patrons with hearing impairments. Grant monies from IMLS have been allocated for accessibility evaluation scans in several Jefferson County libraries to ensure their fulfillment of American Disability Act (ADA) standards. With the annual technology grant each library system receives from IMLS, mobile device charging stations has been installed in every Waukesha County library and will soon be installed in every Jefferson County library. The Pewaukee Public Library used IMLS grant money to acquire robotics and coding equipment for STEM programs, while the Oconomowoc and Mukwonago libraries purchased sensory play materials to encourage children’s manipulative and gross motor skills. The Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson used IMLS grant funds to digitize the Lorine Niedecker archive and make archived copies of the Jefferson County Daily Union searchable online. Without IMLS, services like these must either be supplemented by local governments or simply disappear altogether.
The true value of the library is impossible to calculate. As an institution supported by the people and for the people, the library serves as a visible reminder in our communities of our commitment to our country’s highest ideals. Why do we need libraries? Because a place where everyone is welcome and everyone is equal is a fundamental American concept worth protecting. Because the freedom to think, inquire, and discover, covered under the First Amendment, is only possible when everyone has equal access to quality information. By defending that right, strong libraries build strong citizens—and strong communities. That is something we can never afford to lose.
You can support your public library with your time and your voice. Check out a book, volunteer, spread the message with the #saveIMLS hashtag, or contact your legislators and share why you need your library. You can find out more at: www.ala.org/everyday-advocacy/take-action-saveimls.
A version of this article appeared in the Waukesha Freeman, the Oconomowoc Enterprise, the Daily Jefferson County Union, and the Watertown Times. We will be sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.