Why Libraries Are a Smart Investment for the Country's Future

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Across from the United States Supreme Court, two hundred people gathered at the Library of Congress to celebrate Monday — and not because of the court's immigration decision. From suited university presidents to red-shirted Boy Scouts from Cincinnati, these partiers gathered at a symposium to commemorate a troika of American institutions: the land-grant university, the National Academy of Sciences and the Carnegie libraries.

The celebration was marked by a keen awareness that libraries have been vital engines of America's social mobility from their earliest days. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and former New York Public Library president who raised a $327 million to revive the institution in the 1980s, led an afternoon panel discussing libraries' foundational importance to a democratic America. Gregorian's central point: the Library of Congress is and must continue to be the "guardian not only of our nation's memory but of humanity's."

Libraries across America share this task thanks to Andrew Carnegie, who gave some 1400 grants to build libraries across the country, worth $41 million at the time, or several billion in today's dollars. His gift of the New York Public Library tops the charts of philanthropic acts in American history. "The library in his mind was the quintessential educational institution for the whole community," said David Nasaw, history professor at City University of New York.

Carnegie's influence on education expanded social possibilities for everyday Americans. "There are now more public libraries in the United States than McDonalds restaurants," noted Clara Hayden, CEO of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Libraries provide people with cultural capital, she explained — lectures, music, debates, and news, all free and accessible. Libraries were even some of the first places open to all races. Today more than 70% of all libraries offer free internet access, and in a struggling economy where even applications for dishwashing jobs must be filled out online, that is no small public service.

Today America's library system sits at a critical juncture. The Library of Congress alone has lost some 1300 staff since the onset of the digital media age two decades ago. Until last week, four of the six largest American publishing houses did not lend digital books to libraries, president of the New York Public Library Anthony Marx noted. And last month, the NYPL's move to renovate its landmark headquarters to include more computers and resources for the general public prompted protests from scholars and writers who wanted to preserve the space for research.

Despite these challenges, the transition to digital media continues to open doors for innovative public service. The Library of Congress is spearheading the creation of a new World Digital Library with 145 institutions worldwide. The project allows the United States, often criticized for supplanting other cultures identities, to help with the repatriation of other countries' unique cultural memories, said the Librarian of Congress James Billington. The Digital Public Library of America, an online project shepherded by Harvard University to spread knowledge beyond traditional library shelves, aims to launch in April of next year.

As both the national economy and print empires shift, it may be tempting to take America's library system for granted. Marx reminded the audience to keep investing in the country's public educational opportunities, especially public libraries. "You cannot have a functioning economy if you do not have innovation," he said. "You cannot have a functioning democracy if you cannot have the citizenry able to inform itself." Nasaw agreed: "We should emphasize that libraries are not frills. They are not luxuries, but a sacred component of American education and American democracy."

The symposium also commemorated the act that granted 17.4 million acres to states in the 19th and 20th centuries to launch land-grant colleges all across the country. "The Morrill Act provided a blueprint for America's first continent-wide plan for education," Librarian of Congress James Billington said. Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont, he noted, crystalized a vision for fostering agricultural, mechanical, and liberal arts studies. Over 100 public universities have been created as a result.

Land-grant university presidents at the conference panels touted the contributions that their public institutions have made to society. University of Georgia President Michael F. Adams praised his students for their recent discovery that the Peach State is actually better suited to growing blueberries — as a result of their research, Georgia has since shifted gears to produce more berries than their official state fruit. Montana State University President Waded Cruzado noted that without funding for land-grant institutions, one of her school's graduates, renowned vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman, might not have been able to afford higher education. Hilleman developed eight of the 14 vaccines given to prevent childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps and pneumonia around the globe. "It is claimed that he saved more lives than anyone in the world," Cruzado said.

Although the Morrill Act and the library system are often praised for helping Americans break the glass ceiling, the 150th celebration served as a reminder that some parts of the ceiling have yet to be shattered. Allen Sessoms, President of the University of the District of Columbia, expressed frustration that higher education is becoming more of "a private good than a public necessity." Some schools now offer more merit-based scholarships than need-based aid, he said, and that's a drift from their public mission. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), who earlier told the gathering that he got his first library card at age three, closed with a final challenge for Washington: "Why not celebrate this anniversary by taking steps to make our institutions work?"

Additional Reporting by Nicole Greenstein