At a time when both marginalized communities and our access to information are threatened by U.S. executive powers, one Canadian author is here to help save us. Published on the New York Public Library website, Margaret Atwood's letter for libraries reminds us that "there are no public libraries" in Gilead, the post-democracy U.S. she created in her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale.
Atwood's novel takes place in what was formerly the United States, now known as Gilead, after a coup places a militaristic, hyper-patriarchal, theocratic government in power. Under the new regime, women are forbidden from reading, writing, and teaching, and their societal value relates directly to their ability to produce healthy offspring.
More than 30 years later, The Handmaid's Tale still feels relevant to our society. The proposed budget that came out of the White House earlier this year completely defunds the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which provides roughly half of the funding for each of the 123,000 libraries scattered across the U.S., which are used by 69 percent of the population every year. The budget is nothing short of an attack on knowledge and the free and fair distribution of information.
Margaret Atwood's letter for libraries is part of the Invest in Libraries initiative: a partnership between the NYPL, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Library. New York City's libraries need $1 billion to repair, upgrade, and maintain their buildings and services in order to meet the needs of patrons. Invest in Libraries is currently "calling on the City to increase operating funding for libraries by $34 million in FY18 to expand 7-day service," according to its latest report. The campaign is also asking for a $150 million capital-funding allocation to repair and maintain the 216 library branches in NYC.
There are an infinite variety of tyrannies and dystopias, but they all share one trait: the ferocious opposition to free thought, open minds, and access to information. Where people are free to learn, to share, to explore, feel and dream, liberty grows.
This is why the library matters so much. It is a democratizing and liberating force like none other. The library encourages new thinking in unexpected directions. It offers support to immigrants, students, to anyone with a well-developed curiosity or deep need for community. It is a place for minds to meet minds and hearts to move hearts.
It's no coincidence, therefore, that there are no public libraries in the dystopia I wrote about in my novel The Handmaid's Tale.