More than 500 librarians gathered in Washington D.C. on May 1-2 for a daylong workshop and visits with lawmakers as part of the American Library Association’s annual National Library Legislative Day. And despite facing some of the most serious political challenges in recent memory—including a proposal by President Trump to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (and thereby virtually all federal library funding) librarians arrived to some good news: a fiscal 2017 budget deal that spared libraries from the axe—at least for now.
Released about 2 a.m. on Monday, May 1, the 2017 budget deal actually increases federal funding for libraries by roughly one million dollars for the year ending September 30. But the message from ALA officials in Washington D.C. was clear—the fight for future funding is already underway. And outgoing ALA Washington Office executive director Emily Sheketoff told attendees, that fight will not be easy. “This is a very tough year,” Sheketoff told librarians. “If a tax bill goes through, that means less money [for libraries]. If a wall goes up that means less money,” she said, referring to two of Trump’s signature policy proposals.
In his opening remarks to librarians, ALA executive director Keith Fiels put things in even starker terms. “Libraries are facing the challenge of a lifetime,” he said. “This is where the rubber hits the road.”
Fighting for Dollars...
If the challenges facing libraries are great in the Trump era, librarians certainly appear up for the fight. Attendance at this year’s National Library Legislative Day in Washington D.C. was the highest in over a decade. And a thousand more librarians participated online.
The event includes a daylong meeting—part master class on talking to legislators, part primer on key issues and legislation, and part pep rally—and culminates the following day with delegations of librarians from each state visiting their representatives on the Hill.
So what issues were foremost for libraries in 2017? Most prominent: the 2018 budget. Throughout the day, the message was drilled home for librarians—ask their legislators to fully fund the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) for 2018 at $186.6 million; appropriate $27 million for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program. And, reauthorize the Museum and Library Services Act (MLSA)—the broader legislation that supports library funding.
LSTA is the federal funding program for libraries, with most of the resources administered through the IMLS as grants to the states. IAL is a vital literacy program, that among other things has supported programs dedicated to digital reading, improving school libraries, and fostering greater parental engagement with their children’s reading experiences. And though Congress can allocate library funding without reauthorizing the MLSA, Sheketoff stressed to librarians the importance of reauthorization.
“It says to the president, to the executive branch, that there is strong support in Congress for libraries,” Sheketoff explained. “And it stops all this foolishness about eliminating the IMLS.”
Librarians also urged their Senators to sign the ALA’s “Dear Appropriator” letter in support of library funding for 2018. Already, over a third of house members have signed the letter, and the goal is to get more than 51 senators on board by May 19. Appropriator letters are an important tool, ALA officials explained, as they let legislators know which issues have strong support among their peers—and therefore what programs must be funded when budget negotiations heat up.
Beyond funding, librarians also huddled with lawmakers on a range of other issues: copyright, open government, and privacy issues among them.
On Copyright, they urged the Senate to reject HR 1695, a bill passed by the house last month that would make the Register of Copyrights a presidential appointment—although librarians strongly support efforts to modernize the U.S. Copyright Office. They also urged the Senate to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty, which would provide a copyright exception that would enable libraries to provide services across borders to print-disabled patrons.
They also urged lawmakers to support Net Neutrality rules—currently under fire by new FCC chairman Ajit Pai—and to support the FCC’s E-rate Modernization Orders of 2014, which would provide significant funding for better broadband for libraries and schools. And in one of the key issues of the day, librarians insisted that Congress must act on privacy protections and surveillance law reform.
In a morning keynote, Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, recalled librarians’ work in opposing the USA PATRIOT Act—and spoke of their alliance in reigning the government’s warrantless data collection.
“The spying powers have long been cause for concern because they violate our rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association,” Shamsi told librarians, “but they are now wielded by a president who previously invited Russia to hack his political opponent who reportedly eavesdropped on his own hotel guests, and has called for the expanded surveillance of Americans, especially American muslims.”
Notably, in addition to the suddenly tense political atmosphere in D.C., ALA will have another challenge: rallying librarians for battle with new leadership of its own. Sheketoff is retiring this week after more than 17 years. Hired to raise the library community’s profile on the Hill, she has certainly succeeded, notching a string of legislative victories over the year on behalf of libraries, and more precisely, for the public libraries serve.
“Because of her leadership and the hard work of her staff in DC, ALA has been a force for good in Washington,” said ALA President Julie Todaro.
And Fiels is also retiring this summer, following the ALA Annual Conference, in Chicago. In his talk, he acknowledged the ALA's political success in recent years, and thanked librarians for their efforts. But he urged them to remain engaged. "It could all go away with a stroke of a pen," he warned.