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The unsung agency working to maintain museum and library access in the US

The leader of the Institute of Museum and Library Services tells us what his organisation is doing to help spaces reopen

Children learning to build electronic circuits at the Orange County Library System

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the unsung hero of US government arts agencies. It supports hard-to-fund projects at US museums and libraries, and, with a $255m budget it spends far more than the National Endowment for the Arts and its counterpart, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its new director, Crosby Kemper, was confirmed by the US Senate in January, after 15 years serving as the transformative director of the Kansas City Public Library system. Just a few months into taking office, he is now overseeing the agency’s efforts to support museums and libraries as they struggle through the Covid-19 crisis.

Kemper’s most pressing focus is how to help museums and libraries open soon and safely. “The biggest issue will be fear,” he says. “People are afraid, and we have to help them feel safe and to help libraries and museums make their buildings and collections safe.” He has enlisted the Battelle Institute, the science and technology think tank, and universities to work with IMLS on Covid-19 sanitation. “Books are handled, and libraries and museums are communal spaces, so we need the scientists and the curators and libraries brainstorming on best practices.” The agency received $50m in the federal Covid-19 CARES Act, which requires a big chunk, $30m, to go directly to state projects.

Once the crisis settles down, places with high poverty and what Kemper calls “digital deserts” are core concerns. “There’s a digital divide between the affluent and the poor that IMLS wants to address, but the challenges are surprising.” When Kemper was a public library director, he saw that the most vulnerable households had bad connectivity, for many reasons. “Poor city kids often shuttle among caretakers,” he says, “and eviction turns life upside down on every front, including online access.”

“Access comes in lots of ways,” he adds. IMLS funds African American and Native American organisations needing to preserve and make available their often irreplaceable archives. “These groups don’t have big donor bases,” he says. “Without the IMLS money, lots of these projects just won’t happen.”

IMLS also supports intellectual property law training and helps teachers integrate digital collections with classroom instruction, as well as funding museum and library conservation. Audience research and programme evaluation are important, too. The agency recently created a new programme providing recipients of US government food aid with free or reduced admission to more than 500 museums.

Too many civic institutions have lost credibility, but museums and libraries have kept theirs and are often the two local institutions of which people are proudest, he believes. “We’re preserving and protecting heritage,” he says. “Rural or urban, they are community centres and places of learning, and people look to them as essential to a good life.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 323 May 2020