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On Ivana and Libraries

Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter, drew angry howls from librarians across the U.S., and understandably so.

She’d blithely tweeted: “This #NationalLibraryWeek, we honor our libraries and librarians for opening our eyes to the world of knowledge, learning and reading!”

Wow. As it happens, Ivanka’s father wants to kill the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which helps fund America’s libraries. The 73-employee agency’s current $230 million budget is less than two years of the President’s travel-related expenses, if his jet-setting keeps up the clip recorded 10 weeks into his term. From classes for the blind to ebooks, IMLS money has helped U.S. libraries in a highly cost-effective way.

In Washington, a librarian named Elisa Babel reminds me that an IMLS-run program has helped pay for the Digital Commons area of the Martin Luther King Library. Patrons can get hands-on experience with the latest tech, including 3-D printers. What’s more, among other benefits, IMLS has sent literacy money to D.C.

Chances are close to zero that either Donald or Ivanka Trump will read this pro-IMLS plea. But who knows? If nothing else, a certain ex-wife of his just might take an interest—Ivana Marie Trump, née Ivana Zelníčková (now a naturalized U.S. citizen).

She grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, in what is now the Czech Republic, aka Czechia. The Czech Republic has ten times more libraries for its population than the U.S. does.

That figure is for public libraries. One exists for every 1,971 citizens, according to a survey from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And remember, that does not include school libraries. What’s more, Slovakia, the other part of the former Czechoslovakia, is itself no slouch in the library department. “I grew up reading lots of books from public and school libraries,” a Slovakian follower of my TeleRead ebook news site told me. “In childhood I had some 7 well stocked libraries within easy walking distance … and was borrowing from each one.”

So what does this mean for the literacy rates in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, even if the number of libraries is not the only promoter of literacy? As of 2003, the rate stood at 99 percent in the Republic, according to the CIA World Factbook, and in Slovakia it was at least 99.6 percent. In all fairness, the Factbook lists the U.S. rate at 99 percent. But then, the definition of “literacy” can be tricky.

“According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy,” the Huffington Post reported a few years ago, “32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read”—not the best of news for those of us worried about crime and unemployment figures.

Some library foes might still argue that with a far more diverse population in the U.S. than in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, those comparisons are not appropriate. On the contrary! This is all the more reason for federal, state and local governments and private donors to support America’s libraries. Talk about a force for assimilation and equality, as well as a smarter workforce!

As gung ho as I am about the creation of a national library endowment—see articles in WaPo and the Christian Science Monitor—I recognize the need for library money from a variety of sources. The immediate priority of library supporters should be the preservation of IMLS and related agencies and programs. No argument there! At the same time, we should still fight for public libraries’ long-term survival. An endowment would at least mitigate possible future damage from Ivanka’s father and like-minded politicians at all levels of government. For now, the good news is that Congress as usual is free to ignore budget recommendations from the White House. It certainly should in this case.

(A longer vision of the above is at