Funding rural libraries, New Mexico style

May 6, 2019

Rural libraries in Kentucky in the Great Depression had no money. Determined to maintain essential services, they began delivering books directly to their patrons. Intrepid librarians stuffed saddlebags and rode down rutted country roads, across streams, through wind and rain and snow to fill requests from far-flung homesteads. Many impoverished countries today help satisfy their citizens’ need for books with similar service — through Biblioburros in Columbia, donkey deliveries in Somalia.

In darker moments of facing another year of reduced library funding in our corner of New Mexico, directors and librarians working with five rural libraries in Rio Arriba County actually discussed whether horseback delivery could help us reduce overhead and stay afloat financially. Most of us don’t have a city tax base to help support us. Often, we are one or two payrolls from a zero bank balance.

A good step in the right direction in this state is the newly created New Mexico Rural Library Endowment Fund. It’s certainly not the game-changer we need. At the very last minute, state legislative committees reduced the endowment investment to $1 million. That’s an annual distribution around $900 per rural library that should kick in by 2021. Much work is ahead to ensure that this fund grows.

Our rural libraries in the county of Rio Arriba formerly received precious funding at the discretion of our county commissioners. For the past two years, however, we received nothing. This year is looking just as bleak.

In response to our precarious finances, our communities do a remarkable job of making donations to sustain us. We’re incredibly grateful to each and every one of them, for the dollars, their volunteerism, and especially for their faith in this quintessential egalitarian, democratic institution — a free public library. Not private, not exclusively for any one segment of our population but open to all. Libraries are physical places where we can socialize on an equal footing. They help smooth out our differences and can help guide us collectively toward desperately needed solutions to all the things that don’t work anymore.

Lately the concept of a public good, such as free public parks, free public education, guaranteed health care and free public libraries, are under attack. These aren’t frivolous demands for handouts. They’re merely the obligations of just societies. They fulfill basic needs. It was Cicero, some 2,000 years ago who claimed, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

While we continue to advocate for our various governments to make rural library support a priority, there are strategies individuals can use to help. Come to our events, attend our programs, read our books, use our computers and Wi-Fi. Our foundation supporters are impressed with numbers!

Consider making automatic deductions to your favorite rural library from paychecks, from IRAs, from Social Security benefits. Think of us when crafting your will. Set up your own endowment fund that would help support our essential services. Find the “donate” buttons on our websites. All of these routes to our funding mean one less bake sale for us, one less annual auction, one less diversion from our mission to empower, enlighten, even occasionally to entertain our isolated communities.

Yes, New Mexico is poor state, but even here our priorities determine where the tax income is distributed. Elect leaders at every level who share your passions and can deliver results. Refuse to apologize for the belief that ultimately, our people have a shared destiny in this nation.

In the meantime, does anyone have large saddlebags and a steady steed they’d like to loan?

J. Lynett Gillette is executive director of El Rito Public Library.