When Congressman Raul Grijalva was a child, libraries were one of the most important things in his life. He discovered newspapers, magazines and Gulliver's Travels.
"It was a place where you could be someone else, experience something as a young kid that was beyond any comprehension of what you would be able to do yourself," Grijalva said on the morning of April 18, in front of El Pueblo Library.
A group of librarians and library advocates stood behind him, just after National Library Week and in the wake of President Trump's 2018 budget proposal, which would eliminate all federal funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The federal agency manages library grants nationwide, funding many library programs and services.
Trump's proposed budget, released in March, would zero out 19 federal agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. These cuts add up to less than one percent of the federal budget.
On April 6, Grijalva secured 144 lawmakers' signatures—across party lines—on a letter to Congress, opposing the cuts and requesting over $186 million in funding for library programs.
"It goes against what I believe is a great tradition in this nation—free and public libraries," Grijalva said to a crowd of about 40 people. He reminded them that while the president can propose budget cuts, he needs the votes from Congress to enact them.
The list of what Pima County libraries have accomplished with the help of federal funding is long. Standing with Grijalva, Pima County Public Library Director Amber Mathewson brought up a few.
Over the last three years, Arizona has received more than $3.1 million for programs that include library services for underserved, rural and tribal communities. For 15 years, there's been federal funding for the University of Arizona Library School's Knowledge River Program, supporting future librarians committed to serving Latino and Native American communities.
Mathewson quoted writer Caitlin Moran in saying, "A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival."
And a life raft may be one of the critical roles libraries play for low-income families today. According to the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of American adults don't have home access to high-speed internet.
Therefore, libraries become a resource for the unemployed on a job hunt, students needing computer access or a safe place to be after school, seniors searching for community resources, and children learning to read.
"Libraries break down the barriers of age, ethnicity, culture, economic status, language and geography," said El Pueblo librarian Anna Sanchez.
Libraries function as the community hub for neighborhoods, especially high-stress neighborhoods, providing programs and resources tailored to the needs of the community, Sanchez said. They improve the overall quality of life.
"Historically, public libraries have had a significant role in maintaining and supporting our free democratic society," she said. "The public library is America's great equalizer, providing everyone the same access to information and opportunities for success."
Sunnyside Unified School Board member Eva Carrillo-Dong opening a public library inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center when she was superintendent for the Pima Accommodation School District.
Many of the kids' reading skills were poor, but through library access, they became reinvigorated to learn.
"We saw an increase of students raising their hands to read, to answer questions," Carrillo-Dong said. "It was amazing, and I knew that a large part of this was because if the public library that we had inside of the juvenile detention center."
Today in in her community, she sees kids flock to the Valencia Library when school gets out.
"Our libraries are the hub of the community," she said. "It gives our students opportunities to find out what is happening around the world. Our students may not go five miles from their home, but our students get to the library and read about what's happening 1,000 miles away from their home."
Grijalva spoke again to reaffirm that he and others are going to work very hard to assure that 2018 federal library funding isn't cut.
"There has to be opportunity for people regardless of age, color, zip code, income—to have access to information," he said. "Libraries are about the future. They're about learning, and they're about giving stability to a community."