According to ALA, there are nearly 17,000 libraries nationwide totaling more than 210 million square feet, and the average U.S. public library building is more than 40 years old. Congress has not provided dedicated funding for library facilities since 1997. Insufficient capital funding has made it difficult for libraries to make improvements to their facilities, and President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure plan does not include any funding for libraries. Budget cuts are also pending for public libraries in New York City, Ohio, Kentucky, and Maine.
Although the digital age and the internet were not yet even imagined, Andrew Carnegie—the wealthy industrialist who lead the expansion of the U.S. steel industry in the in the late 1800s—understood the value of libraries as they exist today. Carnegie funded the creation of 2,509 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of these libraries, 1,689 were built in the U.S. He said, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
Libraries also proved themselves to be indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic. The summary from a May 2020 survey conducted by ALA and other organizations states, “Several themes emerged from the survey results, including that libraries are: involved in community crisis response, cautiously planning for re-opening facilities, committed to meeting the educational needs of students and researchers, and experiencing ongoing or increased demand for library programs and services.” It continues with an analysis of library services, noting that “libraries overall report increased use of virtual library cards, digital content, and virtual programming. As libraries re-open, they anticipate demand for access to physical and special collections, access to computers and the internet, helping students make up for lost ground, supporting faculty and teacher needs, and application support for government services and employment.”
According to EveryLibrary in April 2020, public libraries are locally funded “through dedicated property taxes; through dedicated sales or use taxes; through the general fund of a municipality; by the terms of a contract with a municipality; through a fund allocation by a school district; through fund allocations by several legal or municipal entities via [a memorandum of understanding] or [intergovernmental agreement]; or by direct funding from a state. In most states, over 90% of operational funds are from one of these sources. In some states, there is a supplemental aid contribution from the state via a formula. There are significant and important differences in the underlying stability of local tax revenues between all of these systems.” Because of the pandemic, many establishments shut down and people stayed home and didn’t shop or dine out. Since these entities generated less or no revenue, sales and use taxes declined. Consequently, less tax revenue is available at the state level for libraries that are funded in this way. EveryLibrary notes, “The shock to the economic system in the United States is profound, deep, and immediate. It will be felt by everyone regardless of prior means or station. And will reverberate through our global economy for a generation.”
FEDERAL FUNDING LEGISLATION
There are companion bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate that are both titled Build America’s Libraries Act. The Senate bill (S 127) was introduced on Jan. 28, 2021, and was subsequently referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The House bill (HR 1581) was introduced on March 3, 2021, and was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. The legislation would provide $5 billion to restore, upgrade, and build library facilities in underserved and disenfranchised communities.
More legislation is also pending at the federal level. On July 15, 2021, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending package that includes an increase of $9 million for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). “This full spending package heads to the House floor in the coming weeks. The Senate will begin taking up its funding bills later this summer,” ALA notes.
In addition, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 includes $7.17 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program, which, according to ALA, “will provide funding for public and tribal libraries and K12 schools to purchase connected devices and broadband internet connections for use off of library and school grounds by library patrons, students, and teachers and staff who otherwise don't have internet access.”
ALA shares that “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published the rules and policies for the ECF program on May 11, 2021. While the ECF program is not the same as the federal E-rate program, it will leverage some existing E-rate forms and processes to expedite implementation.” ALA advises, “Libraries and schools can apply for funding for the purchase of eligible equipment and services made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. The application window for the ECF program will open on June 29 and will stay open until August 13.” For tips and additional information about the program and how to apply, visit ala.org/advocacy/ECF.
Marijke Visser, associate director and senior policy advocate at ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy office, says the following:
Your library may also take advantage of other ARPA funds to support related digital inclusion needs, such as programming, staffing, and staff training. The pandemic helped draw attention to what library advocates have known all along—libraries are vital to communities. The billions of dollars in new federal funding through the Emergency Connectivity Fund—and the American Rescue Plan—is a vote of confidence in libraries and shows that more decisionmakers are paying attention. It’s now up to libraries to claim the new funding, and ALA’s new resources will help libraries think big and develop connectivity programs that reach those who need support right now. Libraries know first-hand the lack of internet access—and a device to use it—disproportionately impacts communities of color. With funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, libraries are poised to make a huge dent in the nation’s connectivity gap. The ECF funding can be a game changer for our smaller libraries and especially tribal libraries, which are often cut out of federal funding opportunities.
At the state level, of the nine states requiring more than $8 billion for construction and renovation that were referenced in ALA’s May 2021 Data Brief, California needed the most, at $5 billion. On June 1, 2021, the California State Senate and Assembly issued a 2021–2022 budget plan requesting $500 million for public libraries. The final package, released on June 28, proposed $390 million for support for libraries and $6 billion over a multiyear period for broadband infrastructure and improved access to broadband services throughout the state. It also included $439 million to renovate and overhaul local libraries and address health and safety issues for libraries in low-income areas. Furthermore, $6 million will be allocated to library broadband connectivity and $35 million to connect schools, libraries, and telehealth providers.
Right now, advocacy for funding public libraries is critical at both the state and federal levels. ALA offers tips and links to forms that may be used to contact elected officials, including one titled, “Tell Congress to Invest in Library Facilities Today!” As Andrew Carnegie stated, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”