Why Our Libraries Matter

Photo Credit: Richland Library dot com

While in South Carolina recently for the SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge, I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit the main branch of Columbia’s Richland Library. With state-of-art facilities, extensive programs and meeting spaces, this is not the same public library system I frequented as a child growing up in Chicago. The Richland Library is redefining community engagement, which is why I’m so excited to share with you what they’re doing.

First and foremost, the main branch’s building is exquisite! It is filled with light, soothing colors and plants, including a live tree. During the planning of the renovation, Executive Director Melanie Huggins shared with me, they decided to remove some bookshelves, much to the consternation of the Board of Directors. However, Ms. Huggins recognized that the technological revolution made access to information free and books easily attainable. Therefore, the mission of the library had to be redefined. For the Richland Library, which has a total of 14 locations, that meant finding new ways to engage people in the process of learning.

The executive team made it a priority to retrain the 400-member staff–to help them become not only information experts, but also customer service specialists. The staff welcomes their patrons like guests, which I witnessed upon my arrival. Ms. Huggins said the training also encouraged the staff to care about their patrons’ concerns; to be committed to giving their best, and to believe that the library could also be a fun environment. The renovations included more meeting spaces for community outreach and services; interactive playrooms; recording and editing studios; business centers for entrepreneurs; access to a social worker or learning coach; homebound book delivery service; maker centers with free access to tools; educational training centers for completing high school or learning a new skill; listening rooms for audiobook engagement, and a Family Suite that has a nursing mother’s lounge and a family bathroom. There is even a café!

With input from the staff, they developed new outreach programs to help Millennials and members of Generation Z engage with the library, even if they never entered a physical location. For example, the library partnered with bars and restaurants to sponsor a night where the staff could introduce people to the E-library and sign-up for library cards on the spot. Some branches have Artists in Residence Programs. I also was impressed with several of their outreach programs helping families, such as “Here Comes Kindergarten” classes. These meetings were scheduled in the evening to make them convenient for working parents; they offered shared meals, and they included the services of a nurse to talk about health and wellness. And before opening a new branch in one African-American neighborhood, the staff held extensive talks with community residents. As a result, historic family photos were collected, scanned, enlarged and used in innovative ways to decorate the new library.

The main library was bustling with joy during my visit! There were tables filled with multi-generations of people reading, tutoring or engaging in quiet dialogues. I loved seeing a young man in the Young Adult section with about five books in his hand and the biggest smile on his face.

The Richland Library demonstrates the essential and vital role libraries play in the community, such as offering access to safe spaces; opportunities for exploring, learning and innovation, and supporting an individual’s or community’s limitless potential to thrive.

I am sharing this story about the Richland Library with Arts & Culture Connection readers because federal funding for libraries is once again on the chopping block in the 2020 budget submitted by the White House in March. And the drastic cuts are not just limited to the budget of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). For the third year in a row, the White House is seeking to cut funding it calls “unnecessary and wasteful” for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supports both PBS and NPR.

According to a news report in the Washington Post, “the 2020 budget provides $29 million for the NEA and $38 million for the NEH, both funded at $155 million this year. The CPB would receive $30 million, down from $465 million, and the IMLS would receive $23 million, a $219 million cut.

Clearly, the goal of this budget is to decimate and kill these invaluable and esteemed institutions, which have been on the frontlines of supporting access to culture, arts and education for more than 50 years. Although a bipartisan, Congressional effort was able to block the previously proposed deep cuts, those budgets still left these institutions in a weakened state. And given that 2020 is an election year, the battle for funding of cultural institutions, often falsely derided by the White House as “elitist,” will likely become a political landmine for those representatives facing re-election.

If you believe culture, the arts and learning institutions like the Richland Library or the Smithsonian, now headed by Lonnie Bunch, III, are vital to all of us, I’m urging you to join me in taking action and sharing your concerns with your elected officials. You can find out how to contact your representatives via this link.

Libraries, as well as all other educational, cultural and arts institutions, are the foundation of a humane and just society. Ultimately, this budget battle could determine the future of our nation. That’s why I hope you will keep in mind that the future is determined by what each of us does today.