2018 IMLS National Medals ceremony showcases how libraries transform

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by Shawnda Hines, courtesy of District Dispatch

One of the best things about working in ALA’s Washington Office is the opportunity to attend celebratory events like the presentation of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Medals, the nation’s highest honor for libraries and museums in service to their communities. Over the award’s 24 years, 182 museums and libraries have received the honor. This was my first year to attend the annual ceremony, which was held at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The five library honorees for 2018 are Orange County (Fla.) Library System; Pueblo (Colo.) City-County Library District; Reading (Pa.) Public Library; Rochester (Minn.) Public Library; and Georgetown (Texas) Public Library.

The distinguished speakers at the ceremony expressed sincere appreciation for the role that libraries and museums play in society. It was especially gratifying to hear U.S. Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) call libraries and museums “critical infrastructure” and recognize the services to underserved students who wouldn’t have access to such enriching extracurricular opportunities otherwise. The charismatic president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., boasted about the two IMLS medals won by Columbia’s Richland Library and the Columbia Museum of Art as his city’s pride and joy. Mayor Benjamin also praised libraries and museums for “building cities for all people” and “opening up the halls of the past to inclusion for all.”

ALA members are striving to ensure that libraries are inclusive spaces, and that was demonstrated throughout the program by individual community members who accepted the medals alongside their librarians and whose personal impact stories earned the honor for their library:

  • A young man whose fascination with comics in high school led his library to create programming around the genre as a way to keep children engaged. The library helped him craft his first resume and provided him valuable work experience that later earned him a pay increase at his first full-time job.
  • A teenager whose library provided him with a safe space when he first identified as transgender. He now spends a majority of his time at the library working as a youth services associate and developing programming that provides a welcoming and respectful community for underserved populations.
  • A woman whose library provided the support she needed to get her life back on track after escaping domestic violence. She is now enrolled in a nursing program at a local community college and has plans to rejoin the workforce, with the help of her library’s services. “The greatest thing you get at the library is hope,” she said.

The five libraries and five museums were honored, said IMLS Director Kit Matthew, because they “ensured that their organizations have evolved into catalysts for change for a better future.” And the library users who stood alongside their local library directors are living testimony to the fact that libraries do transform their communities.

The stories of these library patrons, people whose lives have been changed by their libraries, are what inspires me and other ALA staff to serve the libraries and librarians who enable transformation. And it is these stories, told by the people who live them, that can inspire elected leaders at the federal and local level to support libraries by shaping policies and providing funding needed to fuel that change for the people they serve.

Visit ALA’s legislative action center to show your support for IMLS by urging your U.S. senators to cosponsor the Museum and Library Services Act (S. 2271), the legislation which authorizes IMLS.