One for the books
As the Institute of Museum and Library Services receives another stay of execution, a Virginia librarian illustrates the vital need for federal library funding.
ANNANDALE, Va. — It was dusk and Letitia Van Campen was reading aloud.
She wore blue, polar bear-printed pajamas at work that December evening, as she recited “The Twelve Bots of Christmas” by Nathan Hale in singsong.
One of her regulars, a blond boy of about 3, sat among the other children on the rug before her, riveted. It was another Pajama Storytime at George Mason Regional Library.
Van Campen, a youth services librarian at the Annandale, Virginia, branch, beams as she recalls the holiday memory.
“He was just overjoyed,” she said. “[The book] had rhyming, it was about robots. I could just see him counting down ’til the end, so that he could be ready to take that book home with him.”
George Mason, where Van Campen has worked the last two years, is one of nearly 120,000 libraries — about 9,100 of them public — in the U.S., according to the American Library Association. As recently as last week, their future was uncertain.
The Office of Management and Budget justified the institute’s demise, in part: “… given that IMLS primarily supports discrete, short-term projects as opposed to operation-sustaining funds, it is unlikely the elimination of IMLS would result in the closure of a significant number of libraries and museums.”
But Van Campen, 43, feared IMLS’ execution would eventually wreak havoc at the local level, particularly in impoverished communities.
“I think it will hit the (library) systems that have the smaller tax bases and aren’t as well funded,” she said Wednesday, recalling her days in the Houston Public Library system when severe budget cuts prompted layoffs. “The less support in the community there is for the library, the harder this is gonna hit them.”
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a fiscal year 2019 spending bill that not only spared the IMLS but also granted an additional $2 million to the guild his administration had suggested eradicating months earlier.
At the center of the successful literary rescue mission is the ALA’s #FundLibraries campaign. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has been a strong supporter of the bipartisan effort.
“I oppose cutting funds for the IMLS, and I have cosponsored the Museum and Library Services Act to strengthen the agency and ensure federal support for American libraries for years to come,” he said in an email Friday.
The 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee added, “Libraries are essential parts of communities and schools. In addition to more familiar services like book lending, libraries in Virginia and across the nation offer classes and workshops on financial literacy, job-hunting, English as an additional language, and seemingly endless other skills that improve patrons’ knowledge, livelihood and overall happiness.”
Securing IMLS funding for 2019 is but one victory for the ALA; the same battle was fought and won last year, and the association reckons the Trump administration will a third time give the IMLS a death sentence in its fiscal year 2020 budget.
In a blog post published to the American Libraries magazine website Friday, ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo wrote, “Regardless of the outcomes of the November (midterm) elections, we fully expect the administration to again call for the elimination of federal funding for library programs.”
As of this writing, requests for comment from the OMB, regarding the IMLS’ fate in the fiscal year 2020 budget, had not been returned.
The IMLS itemizes “increas[ing] access to information, ideas and networks through libraries and museums” among its strategic goals, as well as “support[ing] learning and literacy for people of all ages.” For Van Campen, who has spent her career helping patrons realize these ideals, that the IMLS has already been on the budgetary chopping block two years in a row is mystifying.
“There are so, so many things to fight against right now,” she said.
Van Campen’s childhood fondness of the printed page spawned a lifelong love of books and passion for helping others find the perfect read. She studied English at Virginia Tech before earning a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Texas at Austin.
She went on to marry UT classmate Mike Van Campen, who is now deputy director of the public library system in Loudoun County, Virginia. Naturally, their two teenage sons are “super into books,” Letitia Van Campen said.
She recalls one of her boys once saying, “‘My friends are so jealous ‘cause you guys are both librarians.’” With a laugh, Van Campen added, “I was like, that is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”
When not working part-time at the library, Van Campen is testing out new recipes in her kitchen or tending to her garden. But nothing tops, she says, “being able to help people.”
She elaborated, “If someone is finding an issue insurmountable or they haven’t been able to find an answer to something, if you can do that, then it makes your day great.”
Marie Cavanagh, an adult services librarian at George Mason Regional Library, admires Van Campen’s dedication to her job, particularly as it pertains to early childhood literacy.
“I think she’s phenomenal and we’re lucky to have her,” Cavanagh said. “She’s willing to put herself out there for the kids and really gets into it.”
This summer, Van Campen read something that disturbed her. The headline loomed: “Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money.”
“That made me so angry,” Van Campen said. “I know it made literally everybody who works in libraries angry.”
Mary Mulrenan, marketing director for the Fairfax County Public Library system where Van Campen works, found the public’s reaction “gratifying.”
“It's important that individuals who use library services stand up for and speak on behalf of libraries and library staff,” Mulrenan said in an email. “Libraries change and grow with the times and will always be a critical component of American democracy.”
Van Campen echoed, “I feel like there are a lot of people that need us.”
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat serving Virginia’s 8th District, also agrees.
“Libraries like George Mason Regional Library in Annandale are linchpins for many communities throughout Northern Virginia,” he said in an email. “We must continue to invest in education and literacy and ensure libraries across the United States are able to provide the services that millions of Americans rely on every day.”
On Saturday afternoon, Van Campen sits in the sunlit children’s section of the library. She’s struggling to conjure up an occupation she’d choose if she weren’t a librarian: “I have literally no idea.”
About 20 seconds pass. Her blue-gray eyes fall on the stacks of familiar picture books, the miniature chairs, the brightly colored alphabet rug, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” stickers on the window. A little girl starts singing.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what I would be.”