Mississippi librarians fight back in nationwide effort as White House again proposes nixing federal library funding
Federal money makes up a meager portion of public library income in the Magnolia State, but literacy advocates say its erosion puts vulnerable communities in peril.
UTICA, Miss. — Kristin Finch sat at a card table in the library basement, surveying knickknacks displayed among dog-eared paperbacks selling for 50 cents apiece. Wares included a hardcover copy of “From Manhattan to Mississippi” by Daisy Karam-Read, a suggestive needlepoint comparing golf to sex, and a creased 1980 movie poster teasing Agatha Christie’s “The Mirror Crack’d,” starring Angela Lansbury and Elizabeth Taylor.
Birds cawed outside the open back door. Gray paint peeled from low, cinderblock walls. It was nearly 1 p.m. and the trickle of Saturday shoppers at the Evelyn Taylor Majure Library garage sale had tapered off at least 15 minutes earlier. For librarian Finch, it was the end of another workday in what she called the “never-ending battle” to keep her rural library afloat. In the days that followed, garage sale proceeds would total about $200 for the 3,000-square-foot library.
“There’s never enough money to go around,” Finch said, adding, “Especially in our area, for our system, we need every penny to keep going.”
Finch’s Utica, Mississippi, branch is one of nearly 17,500 public library outlets in the United States poised to lose their federal funding come October. For the third year straight, the Trump administration has ordered the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the government entity that divvies up federal monies among museums and libraries, and received funding increases each of the last four years of the Obama administration.
In March, the White House called for the end of the IMLS in its fiscal year 2020 budget. It did the same in 2018 and 2019, before lobbying from the American Library Association and bipartisan support in Congress helped keep it open. Last September, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that not only spared the IMLS for fiscal 2019, but also gave it an additional $2 million.
Relative to state and local income, IMLS contributions are small. Still, the annual edict to close the agency, followed by rallying cries from library advocates and an eleventh-hour rescue, has created a cycle that’s both driving and disheartening librarians and the communities they serve, especially in Mississippi.
“It’s easy to get lost if you’re in a rural community,” said JoAnn Blue, director of Carnegie Public Library in Clarksdale.
“If we knew that we could count on federal dollars,” she later added, “it would take off a significant amount of worry.”
Since at least 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau has ranked Mississippi the poorest state, with an estimated 19.8 percent of its population living in poverty in 2017 — a hair ahead of Louisiana and New Mexico. The state’s median household income that year was just over $42,000, nearly $16,000 less than the national average.
“That’s not a sense of pride for us,” lamented Jenniffer Stephenson, director of the Greenwood-Leflore Public Library System and past president of the Mississippi Library Association.
Alluding to a struggling education system and difficulties accessing technology and medical care, Stephenson continued, “We are in such economic dire straits in our state.”
Yet there is, according to one Jackson library administrator, a streamlined solution to bringing people out of poverty: public libraries.
Patty Furr, executive director of the Jackson Hinds Library System, rebuilt libraries on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Now, she’s focused on fashioning a wealth of educational opportunities for Jacksonians, with an emphasis on literacy.
“The people of Jackson desperately need a great library,” Furr said.
Young children in the Magnolia State aren’t required to attend kindergarten. The Mississippi Department of Education reported a 10.1 percent high school dropout rate for the 2017-18 academic year. The Census Bureau indicated that as of 2017, about 21 percent of Mississippi adults had at least a bachelor’s degree, and per the National Center for Education Statistics, 16 percent of adults ages 16 and older in the state are illiterate.
Furr, who once taught elementary school, said when children from print-poor households reach first grade without having learned letters, numbers and colors, the odds of them catching up to their peers are insurmountable.
“Reading and reaching these kids while they’re young is just so important,” Furr said. “It can affect the rest of the person’s life if they can stay in school, get a high school diploma, graduate — that’s like a dream here.”
Furr noted parents of struggling young readers are often illiterate themselves and have difficulty guiding their children through homework. This is where Jackson library programs promoting early childhood literacy, like Our Reading Family, strive to positively impact Mississippi families, Furr said.
Federal funds in the form of an IMLS grant made Our Reading Family and other library initiatives possible. Furr wants to earmark future federal income for a library-based literacy curriculum that could ideally help adults secure higher-paying jobs.
“What does it mean to have a great library?” Furr posed. “It means you can lift people out of poverty.”
Dollars and cents
In its fiscal 2020 budget, the White House Office of Management and Budget defended its decision to shutter the IMLS, saying, “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.”
The administration used identical language in 2018 and 2019. It also noted the nation’s museums and libraries are predominantly funded by state, local and private cash, whereas the IMLS provides supplemental dollars.
An analysis of data collected in the most recent IMLS Public Libraries Survey shows federal funding accounted for just 0.34 percent of all library income nationwide. With a per capita operating revenue of $41.04, only $0.14 came from the federal government that year, demonstrating what IMLS communications manager Elizabeth Holtan described as “one piece of a much larger picture.”
Local funds were the largest contributor at $35.19; $2.83 came from states and $2.89 from other sources.
Further review of Public Libraries Survey data indicates Mississippi is 50th in total library revenue per 100,000 people — only accruing more than Georgia, American Samoa and Guam in fiscal 2016.
In Mississippi, 1.11 percent of fiscal 2016 library income was provided through the IMLS, about $0.21 of $19 per capita spending.
“It might seem as if it’s an insignificant amount,” Blue said. “But it makes a big, big dent in what you can provide — what services you can provide for the community.”
Blue said her library has used federal funding to diversify its book collection, adding African-American audio titles and media spotlighting gay and lesbian voices — underscoring that without IMLS money, it would’ve taken years to fill that offerings gap. Another federal grant allowed Carnegie Public Library to digitize much of its archives.
Blue indicated continued doses of IMLS dollars would bolster her efforts to support the diverse interests of Clarksdale library patrons — from computer coding to the history of the blues.
“I know what people think about Mississippi,” Blue said. “They think everyone is country or hillbilly.
“And even if you are, that does not mean you’re illiterate; that does not mean you’re ignorant.”
Budgeting beyond books
Evelyn Taylor Majure Library is a small, brick-front building on West Main Street in a town that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, had 791 residents in 2017. To its left stands a boarded-up Chevron station, whose black-and-orange “NO TRESPASSING” sign is offset by handmade posters proclaiming, “GOD IS My KeePer,” “REPenT” and “THaNK yOU JESUS!” Another dilapidated structure bookends the library at right. In the parking lot, verdant weeds poked through cracked asphalt in the early April heat.
In rural America, when public library funding dwindles, even by the relatively minute amount the IMLS provides, Finch argued areas most in need of access to information suffer.
“It trickles down pretty much everywhere,” Finch said, later specifying, “The first thing to go is money for programming.”
Majure Library’s spring events include teen poetry workshops, armchair workouts for seniors, scientific story time, local history and genealogy lessons, and a visit from civil rights paragon and Mississippi native James Meredith. Finch worries about the branch’s ability to offer such activities once fiscal 2020 begins Oct. 1.
“Here, it’s just like, what can we get for free?” Finch said. “Everything is affected when any budget gets cut for us. Everything.”
Holtan points out the bulk of federal funding public libraries receive, about $160 million annually, actually flows through state library administrative agencies, like the Mississippi Library Commission.
The man at the helm of the MLC is a maestro in the world of library management. Before Hulen Bivins became executive director of the commission last year, he led state libraries in Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina.
He breaks down the murky funnel of IMLS funding like this: The institute distributes federal funding to SLAAs through a program called Grants to States. Each gets a base amount, plus dollars based on population. As part of the annual grant application process, state libraries also submit five-year plans outlining how they intend to use the federal income. Once an SLAA has IMLS money in hand, it can distribute it to local public library systems in accordance with those plans.
MLC administrative services director Jennifer Peacock stressed, “It’s our responsibility as the agency to look statewide at what’s needed and focus the money in those areas.”
Places like Columbus, Mississippi, where Peacock said a high volume of children with autism spectrum disorder reside. The Columbus-Lowndes Public Library system used IMLS money to help launch its Autism Resource Center.
Across the state in Sunflower County, Peacock noted a high interest in technology education among older adults. That library system used federal funds to purchase computers and create a learning lab for seniors. Peacock said other Mississippi systems rely on IMLS dollars to purchase new books.
“If we were to lose that funding,” Peacock said, “absolutely, the impact on the state would just be detrimental — completely detrimental.”
In Greenwood, Mississippi, Stephenson said she’s ready to brawl for funding at all levels of government.
“We have to fight for it every year,” Stephenson said, stressing, “This is something that’s part of the job now; you can’t just wait around.”
Both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have slashed and expanded IMLS appropriations. Between fiscal 2004 and 2005, the Bush White House allocated an additional $18.3 million to the IMLS before cutting it by $33.4 million the following year. During the Obama years, the enacted IMLS budget in fiscal 2013 was about $12.1 million less than it had been the previous year, but it increased by $7 million in fiscal 2014.
Before Trump, no administration had ever motioned to completely eliminate the IMLS.
This hasn’t fazed Bivins, who said diminishing resources have loomed throughout his more than four decades in the business.
“Without regard to the political party or the personality of whoever has been president, there has always been the possibility of cuts,” Bivins explained, pointing to the IMLS’ small size compared to “giant” entities like the State Department.
Bivins credits another branch of government with the IMLS’ staying power.
“Libraries have traditionally always relied — successfully — upon the membership of Congress,” Bivins said. “That is the heart and soul, in my opinion, of library support.”
He continued, “That is why last year you saw the president zero out IMLS and Congress funded it. That is why we sit here pretty assured that though it’s zeroed out this year, Congress will fund it.”
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he’ll make sure of that.
“As someone who sees the value libraries and museums bring to our communities,” Grijalva said in an email, “I will work tirelessly to ensure they have the necessary resources to modernize their services and solidify their role as the informational hubs of communities across the country.”
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Museum and Library Services Act into law, merging the Institute of Museum Services and the Library Programs Office to form the IMLS. President George W. Bush reauthorized the act in 2003, as did President Barack Obama in 2010.
Last year, Grijalva sponsored the MLSA of 2018 in the House of Representatives. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., sponsored it in the Senate. After the act received bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, Trump signed it into law Dec. 31, reauthorizing the IMLS through 2025.
Yet, on March 11, the White House announced it was nixing the agency for the third time in as many years, propelling literacy advocates nationwide into a familiar battle to keep the IMLS on life support.
But for library proponents and patrons alike, the fight isn’t over.
Heart of Jackson
When she was about 6 years old, Angie Thomas said she witnessed a shooting between a pair of drug dealers at a Jackson park. Physically unharmed, she rode her bike to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where her mother picked her up and drove to Medgar Evers Library.
“She told the librarian what had just happened,” Thomas said, recalling her mother’s actions. “She said, ‘I can’t put her on a plane and take her somewhere to show her there is more to the world. The only way I know how to show her anything beyond what she just saw is through books. Can you please get her some books?’”
The librarian obliged. Thomas was hooked, immersing herself in stories she said allowed her to not only escape to other worlds, but also understand her own a bit better. The library became her second home.
If it weren’t for the Jackson Hinds Library System, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Hate U Give” said she probably wouldn’t be a writer today. In her view, public libraries offer communities a “lifeline” beyond books, providing services and resources in a safe space.
“We have to fight to keep libraries alive, especially in a place like Mississippi, where so often people are forgotten,” Thomas urged. “We’re so often at the bottom when it comes to education and poverty.”
She added, “Taking libraries away will only make that worse.”
Thomas, whose first novel earned a 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Honor, joins the abundance of celebrated writers Mississippi has borne, from William Faulkner and John Grisham, to Greg Iles and Eudora Welty.
The downtown Jackson library for which the latter is named is housed in a mid-century former Sears. On a Saturday in early April, its second floor remained closed, fire marshals having condemned the repercussions of its leaking roof. More rain was expected that afternoon.
Furr turned left outside the Eudora Welty Library, rounding the corner to its western side. She pointed across North State Street at a stark, gray edifice whose four stories of windows stared back. It’s the old Jackson Municipal Library, she said, known in the age of segregation as the “white” library.
There, in 1961, she recounted, nine African-American students from nearby Tougaloo College held a sit-in. They were arrested after refusing to go to the “colored” library. Furr is responsible for the Mississippi Freedom Trail marker that now stands in their honor.
Rainclouds drifted overhead.
Behind Furr, through the Welty Library window, a homeless man leafed through a magazine.
This article was written for Lindsey Leake’s COMM 720 Capstone Seminar in Journalism course at the American University School of Communication on May 4, 2019.