Remarks by The First Lady at National Medal for Museum and Library Service Awards
11:11 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all. (Applause.) Thanks so much. You all, rest yourselves. Thank you. Welcome! Welcome to the White House as we award the 2016 National Medals for Museum and Library Service.
I want to start by thanking Kathryn for that wonderful introduction and for her extraordinary leadership, as well as everyone from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I know she gave out all the accolades before I came out, but I want to join in and thank everyone for their hard work, their continuous hard work, their dedication and their passion for this issue.
And of course, I want to recognize our 10 incredible awardees and community members who have come here today from all across the country. You all are doing such inspiring, innovative and impactful work, and we are incredibly proud of everything you all have been doing. So enjoy this moment -- and don’t be nervous. (Laughter.) I know it’s hard to be in this room and hear that, but -- they’re all like, yeah, yeah. (Laughter.) You can do it. You’re going to make it up these stairs just fine. (Laughter.)
And I have to tell you, as someone who lives in a museum and whose husband will soon be opening a library himself, as you all have heard, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you all do. And I’ve celebrated this event with you a number of times over the years, and altogether, since 2009, IMLS has recognized 80 museums and libraries in 32 states. And as we honor your accomplishments today during my family’s last year in the White House, when we’re just beginning to reflect back on our time here, I am struck by how important your work has been for so many of our efforts these past seven and a half years.
As I’ve said time and time again, when we first got to the White House, one of our goals was to make sure that we opened up the doors to this house as wide as possible to folks from all different backgrounds, particularly to young people who wouldn’t normally have the chance to come into a space like this. And we’ve tried to showcase as many great American art forms and cultural legacies as possible, if you’ve been keeping up.
Over the years, we’ve hosted performances and workshops on everything from Broadway musicals -- this room has been converted in so many ways. (Laughter.) We’ve had a Broadway stage here with kids and performers singing and dancing -- everything to jazz and country music, to spoken word poetry. Not just “Hamilton.” Yes, they performed right here -- (laughter) -- but other spoken-word artists as well.
And the fact is that your work and the work of libraries and museums across the country has actually helped make so many of these events possible whether you understand how you’ve done that or not. Time and time again, it’s our nation’s libraries and museums who have sparked the imaginations and encouraged the interests of so many of our nation’s most accomplished authors and performers. And I’m thinking of the great writers who basically took up residence in their library when they were growing up, or the great artists who were inspired by an amazing exhibit they saw when they were a kid.
And this isn’t just true for the kinds of folks who perform at the White House. We’ve heard this from so many people whose lives have been affected by a great book, or a powerful piece of art -- mine included -- that has transformed the way they see the world and the way they see themselves. That’s how we know that in so many communities our libraries and museums don’t just preserve and promote our cultural treasures, they also enrich and enlarge our lives. And that’s really one of the most powerful things that you all do each and every day.
This year’s incredible awardees are a testament to that truth. Just take the example of Lynn Meadows Discovery Center for Children in Gulfport, Mississippi. I understand that when local leaders and community members came together almost 20 years ago to create their state’s very first children’s museum, they were determined to directly engage every kid and family in the region. So they restored a vacant school building, and after they opened the exhibits, they also set up summer acting camps and music workshops and family cooking classes, and anything that would bring the community in.
And when Hurricane Katrina washed away the entire first floor, they didn’t get discouraged, because they knew that their community needed them more than ever. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and they cleaned up the damage, and reopened, even more determined to carry out that mission. And if you want to know the kind of impact they’re having on young people in their community, I just want you to consider the story of a young man who I just met briefly, Brandon Spann. Brandon, where are you? There you are, you’re right before my very eyes. (Laughter.)
The handsome young Brandon first showed up to the Discovery Center as part of a summer Boys and Girls Club program. And he was a shy, I understand, sixth grader who wasn’t that excited about school at the time. But then they got him on stage and everything changed. All of a sudden you couldn’t help but notice Brandon, because he was a star in the theater. I wish you were performing today, but we’re not going to force you to do that. (Laughter.) And then he turned that stardom into being a star in the classroom too.
And last week, Brandon became the first member of his family to graduate from high school. Congratulations. (Applause.) And he’s going to be the first member of his family to attend college as he pursues a degree in drama. (Applause.) I just love those stories. And there’s a story like that with every one of these awardees. That’s the kind of impact our museums can have, and that’s the story of so many of our libraries as well.
Another one of today’s awardees, the Brooklyn Public Library, is a perfect example. They’re one of the largest library systems in America, with 60 branches, almost 4 million books and periodicals, and nearly 9 million guests last year alone. And they have hosted tens of thousands of public events to reach folks at local senior centers and homeless shelters, to provide literacy programs for new readers and young children, and to mobilize a network of 2,000 volunteers who provide everything from computer courses to citizenship classes.
Now, some of us might not think of a library as a place to take a course on citizenship. But luckily, for a woman named Kim Best, someone else who I met -- very giggly -- Kim, right there -- (laughter) -- that’s exactly how the Brooklyn library system worked for her. See, Kim’s family arrived in this country from Guyana in 1981 -- the year I went to college -- but it took over 30 years for her to realize that even after her mother was naturalized, Kim wasn’t a citizen herself.
Fortunately, Kim had grown up in the Brooklyn Public Library system, so as soon as she found out they offered classes, she signed right up. She spent weeks drilling the questions with her teacher and classmates, and last October, Kim became one of our newest Americans. And she is here with us today. (Applause.) Kim is also the mother of a 10-year-old son named Ibraheem, who wants to be an engineer when he grows up, I understand. And Kim knows that he can achieve that because -- these are her words, this is what she said -- she said, “I know the library is here for him, just like it’s always been there for me.” Good stuff.
Day after day, year after year, our nation’s libraries and museums are here for our communities. And at the end of the day, you all don’t measure your impact by the number of books on your shelves or pieces in your exhibits, but by the young people you inspire, the lives you transform, and the impact you have every single day on your communities.
So to all of our awardees here today, and to libraries and museums across the country, I again, and for the last time in this official role, I thank you all. I thank you all so very much for everything you do. I am proud of you all individually. I’m proud of the work that these institutions do in our country. And I can’t wait to see everything else you continue to achieve in the years ahead. So don’t get tired. (Laughter.) We need you working.
So with that, let’s get to the awards. Thank you all so much, and God bless. (Applause.)
11:21 A.M. EDT