Do we need art? Do we need libraries?

If passed, the newly proposed U.S. budget will eliminate a number of institutions that have contributed to cultural growth in our country. Among these are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. (I’m able to work on my PhD right now thanks to funding from the third one on that list.)

I think that these proposals stem from a fundamental undervaluation of two things: art and libraries. Here I’m going to talk a bit about both.

Do we need art?

Short answer: Yes.

It is fashionable nowadays to suppose that art is “fluff” and science is “practical.” But the thing is, science does not work without art.

Historians of science have pointed out time and again that science needs art. For instance: An artistic sensitivity lay behind Einstein’s thought experiments that led to modern physics (and all the attendant technological advances), as well as the discovery of the structure of DNA (and all the attendant medical advances). You can find some additional examples of the importance of art to science in this Nature article or this book, also published by Nature, one of the preeminent scientific publications.

Art is not something fundamentally different from science or technology. After all: Writing grew out of cave painting, and speech grew out of song.

Even today, even if we don’t think so, all humans engage with the world in an artistic way. Art is not something dispensible. It is a manifestation of human understanding and meaning. The extent that humans engage with art, in whatever form, is the extent to which life has any meaning at all.

If our country stops supporting development in the arts, we are dooming ourselves to be shallow and undeveloped in many ways. Yes, we may see short-term boosts in revenue, but this will come at an irrecoverable cost: Over the coming decades, our technological innovation will slow and quality of life will diminish, and we will fall even further behind in international rankings of math and science than we already are.

Do we need libraries?

Short answer: Yes.

It is fashionable to think that now that we have Google, we don’t need libraries. But this is simply wrong. Libraries do not just provide search results; they help you judge what information you can trust. The proliferation of fake news in modern life is evidence of just how much we need libraries and library-aware education.

I recognize that it’s easy to come to the conclusion that we don’t need libraries anymore, especially from the perspective of the middle or upper classes. I used to think so, too. Unfortunately, it is a bit short-sighted. In my work as a PhD student, I have been researching how libraries are used by urban poor populations across the country. This has taught me a lot. Libraries provide opportunities and make it possible for people to improve their quality of life.

For example, I’ve seen how children go to libraries for homework help that they cannot get at home or school. I’ve seen how adults use library services to find and apply for jobs, or to get advice, or just to find some human interaction. I’ve seen how the closure of a local library branch can disrupt a community, and how the opening of a local library branch brings people together.

Back to the “just google it” mentality: Even though we think of the internet as ubiquitous, there are still 38 million people in our country who do not have internet access. Right now, in Philadelphia, thousands of people are relying on the library as their source of internet because they cannot afford to have access at home — or maybe they don’t even have a computer. (In 2013, the Philadelphia library system tallied 180,000 wi-fi sessions and over 1.3 million computer sessions.)

The proposed U.S. budget would eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. This may not seem to impact you personally, if you never go to libraries or museums, but it would be an inestimable loss of potential for our country.

I just thought I’d share with you my perspective and experience, in case it’s helpful or interesting in any way. If you’re more into statistics, you can learn more about the impact these slated-to-be-eliminated organizations have had in the world by reading about the NEA here, about the NEH here, and about the IMLS here.

The proposed budget is not set in stone; it requires Congressional approval. If you agree that our country needs art and libraries, you can very easily contact your Congresspeople here: https://www.votervoice.net/ARTSUSA