Much of the media coverage of libraries in 2014 to date has centered on the modest progress made on the e-book issue. But 2014 has been a year of significant progress for libraries in the public policy sphere, with a number of library initiatives advancing. Among the most prominent achievements are an FCC plan to overhaul the federal E-Rate program (which funds library and school Internet access), and the inclusion of libraries in legislation to help job seekers. I recently spoke with Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of ALA’s Washington office, about the library community’s legislative accomplishments thus far this year—and its goals for the coming months.
How is ALA approaching this year’s Congressional midterm elections?
As we move toward the midterm elections, we’re encouraging librarians to use this time to educate policymakers about critical library issues, such as federal funding. And now that Congress is in recess, we are asking library advocates to invite all legislators and candidates to visit their local libraries so that they can see firsthand how libraries are supporting their constituents.
Speaking of funding, how would you characterize the current funding environment for libraries?
It’s getting better. At the peak of the Great Recession, libraries experienced budget cuts that resulted in reduced hours, closed doors, and staff reductions. Now, as the economy rebounds and state budgets are coming back to normal levels, library budgets are increasing as well.
In July, the Federal Communications Commission voted to modernize the E-Rate program and expand libraries’ broadband capabilities. Can you talk about the importance of that decision?
The current E-Rate reform effort is incredibly momentous, and important to the future of libraries and schools. At the moment, ALA, along with our library and school partners, is exploring funding and policy scenarios for ensuring all libraries can reach the high-capacity broadband targets that we have outlined, and that the FCC adopted: that’s 100 Mbps for all libraries and 1 Gbps for libraries serving communities larger than 50,000 people.
The FCC’s July order represents a solid first step. A large number of libraries and schools depend on E-Rate funding for Internet access—some 90% of U.S. libraries have used E-Rate at some point, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. But action must be taken to improve high-capacity broadband to and within library and school buildings. Better broadband speed is vital for supporting modern library services, which include interactive homework help and digital learning labs that demand powerful download and upload capabilities. And, of course, so much content is now digital and networked, as collections rapidly transition from books on shelves to bits in the cloud. I would encourage people to stay tuned on this topic via the ALA District Dispatch, as ALA will continue our E-Rate advocacy over the next several months. The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy has also developed a summary that distills the major changes and impacts for libraries.
Also in July, President Obama reauthorized the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, with some key changes ALA lobbied for. Tell us more about that.
Overall, I think our biggest accomplishment this year was the passage of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, which was especially remarkable when you consider the political gridlock in Washington. We are thankful for Sen. Jack Reed’s and Rep. Rush Holt’s leadership, and their efforts to include libraries in this legislation.
Specifically, the new law recognizes the role libraries play in connecting job seekers to employment opportunities. It essentially designates libraries as “one-stop” partners, making them eligible for access to [Department of Labor] one-stop employment funding resources, and it includes adult education, literacy programs, and funding support for 21st-century digital readiness training programs. But our job is not done yet: in the coming months, we will ask libraries to send us information on the job support programs they offer, so we can inform the Department of Labor as it devises implementation for the law.
ALA also released a Digital Inclusion Survey this summer, in partnership with the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland. How will the report help your efforts in the policy arena?
The study provides critical data regarding emerging technology trends in libraries and highlights the ways that libraries across the nation now serve as technology hubs and learning centers for their communities. ALA will use the survey to raise awareness of the roles libraries are playing in supporting national and community priorities. In September alone, we will use the data to inform E-Rate policy recommendations, and to educate members of Congress.
From maker programming to videoconferencing, to nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, the reports shows that libraries are continuing to establish themselves as digital leaders in their communities. The report also shows a leap in the percentage of libraries lending e-books—90% of libraries now lend e-books, up from 76% in 2012.
But the study also reveals that there is still room for improvement: two-thirds of libraries surveyed would like to increase their broadband capacity, and close to 40% of libraries report they still experience computer wait times, even as the study also shows many libraries have increased Internet speeds and the number of computers available to the public. And less than half of rural libraries reported an increase in bandwidth speeds in the last 24 months, compared with 64% of urban libraries and 56% of suburban libraries.
Copyright reform is also on Congress’s agenda. Some librarians feel hamstrung by copyright in the digital space. Will copyright reform actually happen?
I think librarians feel hamstrung by their efforts with licensing—not by the copyright law. In fact, recent court decisions, such as in the HathiTrust case, have broadened our understanding of fair use and have diminished concerns around issues such as digitization and orphan works. Existing copyright law has largely benefited libraries overall.
As for meaningful copyright reform, certainly on a comprehensive basis, I think it is highly unlikely. As we have seen in the recent European Union consultations about copyright, the parties involved are simply too partisan in their stances.
At the same time, digital technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, and new business models for accessing information emerge on a regular basis, directly impacting both library operations and access to information. My hope would be that copyright law continues to protect user rights and that licensing terms do not circumvent library exceptions defined by copyright law. Realistically, however, that is a tall order.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
We will be active on a number of issues. First, we are advocating for an effective school library program in every school. Second, as we discussed, we will continue to advocate for improvements to the E-Rate program. We will also continue to call for affordable e-books for libraries. And, we will also advocate for increased transparency and open access to government information.