Obama Invokes Libraries at Governors Conference

December 3, 2008

"Forty-one states are likely to face budget shortfalls this year or next, forcing you to choose between reining in spending and raising taxes," said President-elect Barack Obama at the National Governors Association meeting December 2 in Philadelphia. "Jobs are being cut. Programs for the needy are at risk. Libraries, parks, and historic sites are being closed," he observed. "Right here in Philadelphia, over two hundred workers are being laid off, and hundreds more unfilled positions are being eliminated."

Immediately, the ALA Council's electronic list lit up with the news. "He said 'libraries'!" everyone seemed to be saying. "He said libraries!" And, yes, it is a good thing that libraries are already on our new president's radar.

The governors meeting is intended to be a bipartisan delegation, and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden welcomed Alaska Governor and former election rival Sarah Palin by saying, "And Governor Palin, your being here today sends a powerful message that when campaigns end, we are all partners in progress. Thank you."

It's going to take all the bipartisanship the Obama team can muster for the new administration to reverse the cascading effect the economic meltdown of 2008, a cascade that threatens library funding across the nation.

Obama told the governors, "We're going to have to make hard choices in the months ahead about how to invest precious tax dollars and how to save them." He asked for the governors' cooperation in designing a recovery plan. "If we are listening to our governors, we'll not only be doing what's right for our states, we'll be doing what's right for our country."

And by implication, for our libraries. Meanwhile, I think librarians need to take a different approach from those institutions standing in line with their hands out. We should concentrate on the myriad ways in which libraries are already a part of the solution to the economic crisis.

I am composing an open letter to send to the president on Inauguration Day. So far, it goes something like this: Dear President Obama, As you become the 44th president of the United States of America, probably the last thing you need is more people telling you what they want you to do for them. From the Headquarters of the American Library Association in Chicago, it looks to me as if everybody is asking you for something, and librarians, of course, don’t want to miss the boat. But before we get in line with our demands, let me offer one modest suggestion for how to deal with this profession: Let us show you what we can do for you. In 2005, before you keynoted the American Library Association’s Annual Conference here in Chicago, I sidled up to you in the green room with a tape recorder and asked you to talk about libraries. You focused thoughtfully on my questions, one of which was, “Can you tell us more about the effect libraries have had on you?” You answered that although people tend to think of libraries in terms of just being sources for reading material or research, it was a librarian at the New York Public Library in Manhattan who helped you find the community organizing job you were looking for. “I probably would not be in Chicago were it not for the Manhattan public library,” you said, adding that the librarian had identified lists of potential employers and, “I wrote to every organization; one of them wound up being an organization in Chicago that I got a job with.”

People all over the country are using libraries in larger numbers than ever before, partly for reading and research as they always have but also because libraries have become community solution centers where people are learning new skills, meeting their neighbors, and getting practical help with some of life’s essentials, such as managing their dwindling finances or, like you, finding a job. Following our brief interview, you went on to deliver a keynote speech so clearly tailored to librarians that we immediately asked your staff for permission to adapt it as a cover story in the August 2005 issue of American Libraries. In it you said, “More than a building that houses books and data, the library represents a window to a larger world, the place where we’ve always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American story forward….”

Many of us walked away from that speech already saying, “Yes we can.” We can continue to be the “sanctuaries of learning” that you remember. We can foster literacy, what you called “the most basic currency of the knowledge economy.” We can produce the highest achieving students when they attend schools with good library media centers. We can help parents prepare children for the workforce and for a lifetime of reading and learning. Libraries are central to community development, civic engagement, and scholarly excellence. Therefore, the librarians of this nation ask not what you can do for libraries but what libraries can do to help you solve the daunting problems we all face. We’re at your service.