Libraries Are Part of the Safety Net: No Wonder Governments Hate Them

Here in Oakland, a citywide budget shortfall is hitting our libraries in ways that are tough to read about: 90 percent staffing cuts and full floor closures at main locations, and the complete shuttering of community branches, including the Cesar Chavez branch, the Chinatown branch, and the African American Museum & Library of Oakland. Unless drastic measures are taken, Oakland’s first Asian-American mayor will preside over a city with a Chinese collection behind locked doors.

As cities across the nation yank funding from their school and public libraries to fill budget gaps, there’s been chatter of how the internet is killing libraries — and, perhaps, making them irrelevant. This doesn’t sit right with me, not just for the obvious point that the internet and a library are two very different things, but for the implication that the internet is the library’s first natural predator. Really?

So, I asked an expert: my mother. Barbara Jean Walsh ran libraries in small towns and schools across the nation — libraries in which I grew up — for about two decades, before leaving the field in frustration in the early ’90s. The story she tells, of top-down funding mismanagement and small-town libertarianism, has stark parallels in today’s fights for the safety net. It’s a story in which communities of color have the most to lose, and are the first to suffer.

What does a library really face in its fight to bring information equity to its community, and how does it work as part of the safety net? Here’s what my mom told me.


I have very mixed feelings about the role of libraries, to this day. However, I can say this without a doubt: the most important thing that we were doing at my library in Clifton, Arizona, in the ’70s, was our literacy classes. That’s stayed with me so strongly — it was a very small, very poor mining town, and we were the only place where our Latino population could come in and learn English. Women especially, women whose husbands were very clear that their wives didn’t need to be literate. We had a woman named Maria, who was determined to read and write. She would come in — she would come in black and blue, and bloody. Sometimes her husband would call us, to say, Maria is not coming to the library today. 

And it used to tear me apart, to think that — I don’t remember when I couldn’t read and write. I still wish I had a tenth of Maria’s courage.

For me, that was a very valid role for the library, because we were being the bridge. We were doing the appropriate thing to give everyone access. That library was a horrible library, you know, if you judged it by the lists of books. But it was a great library if you judged it in terms of the safety net. We made partnerships with other agencies in town; we had a community room that was always busy; we had day care, we had after school programs. We got a grant to do games and activities, and we spent it on a pingpong table — that’s a game — and a sewing machine — that’s an activity. We worked extensively with kids, so that they would come to the library, so that it would be a place for them. We worked with the county to help answer people’s questions about social services and help them get referrals. That library had incredible resources that weren’t the books, because it had incredible community ownership.

Seward, Nebraska, in the ’80s, was a very different situation. The city council really didn’t understand why their money should go to a library, because they weren’t part of the economic community that used the library. So I was in the position, every funding cycle, of — not even of asking for money. Of having to defend the very idea of public libraries! They’d ask me a question like What did you do with the books we gave you money for last year? We had a book about the moon from the first half of the century, that showed the moon with active volcanoes on the cover, and no money to replace it. Or, Why don’t these people just buy their own books? They’d walk in, see people reading, and think, Why should my taxes pay for them to just sit around and read? 

This is the same city government that let the employees at Planned Parenthood’s free health clinic be harassed out of town, because the local doctors said that they were losing business. This was rural Nebraska in the Reagan years, and they didn’t understand anything that didn’t make money — and honestly, a library is a pretty socialist enterprise.

And from what I saw, money was what brought down libraries. That was the big shift in the late 1970s. Libraries couldn’t depend on taxes, and had to make themselves look viable to regional funding agencies that didn’t know anything about their communities. They had to compete with each other for grant money for things they didn’t want to do, just to keep their doors open. Cities would base librarian salaries on state averages, which meant that a retired woman taking minimum wage to save funds was unintentionally setting the same salary for me, a single mom with student loans. 

The employees and the patrons lost their say, and as a result, libraries changed; either they became babysitters, competing for funds by doing whatever some manager at a funding agency thought best, or they became warehouses with a scanner and a security guard. And this was all well underway long before the internet.

Libraries don’t need to be daycare centers to have community value, to be part of the safety net. Libraries are already, naturally, a part of the safety net, because they empower their community with equitable access to knowledge. And libraries can’t do that without librarians — someone who knows their collection, who knows their patrons, who has the right training and the right salary. Someone who has compassion, and the financial and social resources to act on that compassion without losing their mind.

They also can’t do it without communities. If a community doesn’t feel ownership of its library, it’s going to go away. And if the people at the city and the county aren’t made to understand a library’s value for the community, they’re not going to fund it. It breaks my heart that libraries have to be fought for, that their role and their potential isn’t known by heart by everyone. But that’s where we are. If we want to keep our libraries, our libraries need champions.

This post first appeared on the site of, a home for journalism in service to racial justice since 1998, first as a print magazine and then as a daily news site. is published by the Applied Research Center (ARC) a racial justice think tank using media, research, and activism to promote solutions.


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Photo by adriannnnn via flickr
Written by Channing Kennedy, a Colorlines blogger


W. C
W. Cabout a year ago

Thank you for caring.

William C
William Cabout a year ago


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra6 years ago

Thank you Lindsay, for Sharing this!

Barbara DeFratis
Barbara DeFratis7 years ago

YES, Libraries are Important-VERY IMPORTANT. I remember when my older son's other favorite show was 'Reading Rainbow', which always inspired a trip to the library. He has since gone on to Honor Society in high school and Honor College of U A, where he has been on the Dean's List all his years of College. He is now a student teacher.

Janine Hofmann
Janine H7 years ago

Hopefully books will stay forever and do not vanish because of internet. And hopefully there are more people who like books, who like real paper in their hands with real ink. I love books. And as long as i can think back they have been the only friends i ever had. Books don't hurt (only when thrown) as people can hurt. And they can help to survive some things achild or an adult doe not want to go through... But books don't have a warmth of embrace :(

Sonja Lord
Sonja Lord7 years ago

since I was a little girl I thought libraries were heaven on earth. All the books you can read for free, interesting displays, cosy corners to sit on your own and browse. If I can't get to the library at least twice a month I feel demoralised. It's not just about it being free either. There's a sense of community even at the smallest, tackiest most underfunded library. I'm happy to see people of all shapes, sizes, colours and salaries browsing and taking home bags of books. It's incredibly depressing though - I have heard of some libaries in South Africa closing down soon due to lack of funding. And yet ministers drive luxury cars. Hmmmmmmm - same the world over huh?

Cynthia Blais
cynthia l7 years ago

I have loved libraries since I was a child. It was a sancturary for me. With the books I went to places I could only dream about and was educated to the world and the world of possibilities. My parents could not afford books. thank God for the library and the concerned librarians

Shirley Marsh
Shirley Marsh7 years ago

Kenneth M - what kind of 'gangs' do libraries produce? Literate, educated, curious, wonderful people with minds they like to use; with a hunger for knowledge; a curiosity about the world they live in; a gratitude for being able to access books and information they would never have dreamed of if their only access to knowledge was from books they bought themselves! Is closing libraries and throwing these people out into the streets going to eliminate gangs? Is it because of libraries, education and knowledge that our world is infested with drug users and dealers everywhere? Yeah, right!

May I suggest you go to a library and start browsing - you might be surprised at how much you'll learn and how it will change your life - if you want to change it, that is.

I've always loved libraries, and browsing the shelves has opened up new worlds to me that would otherwise always have been closed. I guess you could call me a 'library gangster'!

It is very hard to 'control' and dictate to a well educated, literate and informed population. It doesn't matter if the motivation behind these closures is just ignorance, or something more sinister; people who truly believe in democracy would never dream of doing anything to stifle education in any form.

That's how you know who to vote for when the time comes; so watch and be aware so you can cast an informed vote that ensures we all have access to the one thing that is a cornerstone of democracy; education.

Eric L.
Eric LaRue7 years ago

Unfortunately, we're going to see a lot more attacks on libraries as we see attacks on the middle class. Why? We're going to see GOP politicians angling themselves as the ones who can best starve local and state governments by giving tax breaks to corporations as part of their ambitions for higher office. Then, when they reach the highest office they can get, they will "retire" and take a job as executives to those corporations they helped to benefit.

Maarja L.
Maarja L7 years ago

Kenneth M: Libraries breed gangs? Excuse me? Even if they do, I'll have a library 'gang' any time before the one whose members hang out somewhere else.