Since its founding in 1996, the Institute of Museum and Library Services has been a vital source of support for America’s libraries. And after a year of historic challenges, the independent federal agency figures to play an increasingly important role. At the recent U.S. Book Show, PW talked with IMLS director R. Crosby Kemper III, former director of the Kansas City Public Library, about the state of libraries and how IMLS is responding to the needs of libraries in these unprecedented times. What follows is an edited and abridged of version of that interview.

Congress has allocated millions in pandemic relief funding to be delivered through IMLS, roughly doubling the agency’s usual funding. This is surely a good problem to have, but has it been a challenge for IMLS to double its grantmaking on such a tight timeline?

It’s very exciting to have more money—I want to be clear about that. And it’s a great tribute to the history and mission of the IMLS and to libraries and museums. The increase in funding started with the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act last year, and over the last 14 months we’ve doubled the size of the agency in terms of our spending—$50 million from the CARES Act, and $200 million from ARPA [the American Rescue Plan Act]. We have not increased the size of the agency in terms of our staffing, and of course we’re all working remotely.

But it is, as you say, a great problem to have. And we’ve already spent a lot of that money. Because this is pandemic-related emergency funding, Congress asked us to distribute it quickly, and we are. It should also be said that Congress, with the approval of the Trump administration, had modestly increased our budget over the last four years, even though it looked like we were being zeroed out. And the Biden administration has now given us a slightly more than modest recommended increase, so we’re excited about that.

It's been an unprecedented year. A global pandemic, and a racial and social justice awakening both of which impacting the work of libraries. How are you seeing these circumstances manifest in terms of what IMLS is being asked to support?

Well, to begin with, I think that the historic engagement of libraries with their communities is something the pandemic has highlighted. Libraries have been very active in things like community health, community information, helping first responders, and with virtual education, for example. And as we deal with the economic problems caused by the pandemic, the work of libraries in terms of workforce development, job searching, and skill development is also underscored.

In terms of what we’re seeing at IMLS, I think there are two things. One is addressing the digital divide, which has been very much highlighted by the pandemic.

Broadband is essential for job development. Virtual education is going to remain a major thing. And of course health care and tele-health is going to be very important, and libraries will play a very large role in that. But the divide in our country in terms of access to technology is huge. Libraries need to focus on being able to deliver an equitable response, a response that recognizes the needs of our under-resourced communities. We’ve had some success in getting folks in Washington to understand that broadband is essentially a utility. Now we need to get them focused on delivering service to folks in the inner city and in rural areas, folks who have not been included in the digital universe so far.

The other thing we’re seeing in terms of some of the proposals we’re getting is around equity. Going forward the equity issue is a really big one. And my personal commitment and focus is to make sure that this isn’t just a box checking exercise. We’ve seen a lot of diversity training programs and statements of concern, all noble and good in intent. But a lot of it ends up being box checking. And I just want to say that’s not the real thing. We need the real thing. So I want to make sure we’re doing things like paid internships, scholarships, and more programs directed at recruiting people of color into IMLS programs.

In the library world, somewhere between 6% and 8% of staff are people of color. If you look at the 25 largest libraries, I think eight directors are people of color. So, at the top we’ve sort of cracked the glass ceiling a bit. But we still have a big pipeline problem. And that problem needs to be addressed by drafting people into the profession, and giving more people an idea about the joys of librarianship.

At the same time, libraries also need to be focused on equity issues at the community level. Because the real work of equity takes place in school districts, in local business programs, and in workforce development at the city and state level. So we have to have the right partners there. Our grants to states program administered through state libraries are increasingly focused on these kinds of issues, and IMLS will continue to encourage and support those activities in particular.

What’s your sense of how this past year has impacted the library workforce?

All frontline library workers, anybody working in what we could call a retail situation, working the desks or walking the aisles in libraries, were of course most impacted by the pandemic and the strain of enforcing social distancing rules and mask wearing and all of that. At IMLS, we reacted very quickly to create the REALM [Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums] Project with Battelle and with OCLC to do real scientific research around the virus, to seek answers to questions about the virus on materials, on surfaces, social distancing, and what works inside a library or museum space.

I know there’s been some controversy within the library world, and great unease about reopening. But I think concern for frontline staff is top of mind for most library directors around the country. And with the new CDC guidelines—which, by the way, are informed in part by our research—things are changing for the better. Libraries are now rapidly and successfully reopening.

One thing I think should be said, too, is that we’re all in this together. Health-care workers, grocery store workers, delivery people, we could go through a long list of people who have really been on the front lines. And I feel very strongly about this, morally: every employer, every library director should be concerned about his or her staff and they should demonstrate that concern every day. If you manage frontline people who are dealing with customers, then you should be out there with those frontline staff.

Care for self is very important and so, too, is care for others. The really important thing about libraries, historically, is our care and concern for the community. Librarians are very good at reaching out. Now we have to reach in and care for ourselves, and continue to reach out and care for the community, too.

You touched on this a little bit, but how do you see libraries evolving post-pandemic? Is there anything that stands out to you as something libraries should focus on?

I think digital and hybrid services will continue to grow. You’ve seen the statistics. What we do with electronic information is very important. But I think the other thing we need to be focused on, besides community engagement, which is obvious, is reading. I think reading is the most enabling skill.

There was a fascinating study released recently, one of the most important pieces of research done in recent history, about the Boston School District and its early childhood education program. The study started in the 1990s, which means we now have a longitudinal history of the impact of early childhood learning programs. On school achievement, the impact is not that strong as it turns out. But it turns out these programs are very important in terms of social and behavioral issues later on—employment, educational persistence, encounters with the justice system, stuff like that.

There is just so much research now that points to engagement with children as the single most important social activity that we can encourage. And who does better with that than libraries? So I think that, post-pandemic, we absolutely need to be focused on reading and younger children.

A report came out this month that caused a stir in the library community—the Freckle Report, compiled by U.K. library advocate Tim Coates. In it, Coates expresses alarm over an eight-year slide in IMLS stats measuring things like circulation and gate counts in public libraries. What’s your impression of the report?

Let me start by saying that I think Tim is asking the right question. He’s noticed a decline in children’s book circulation, and a decline in resources devoted to materials. But those two things are not necessarily related. The complexity of how libraries are devoting our resources and the reasons for the decline in book circulation and the question of children’s reading are more complicated than IMLS statistics can reveal.

There is just so much research now that points to engagement with children as the single most important social activity that we can encourage.

At IMLS we’ve been exploring research on children’s reading. And we’re going to focus a library convening next year on this question of reading—the importance of reading in the library, the importance of reading for citizenship, for community engagement, and for citizenship in light of some of the things going on in our country. At the end of the day I think we will find that libraries have a very positive impact. But I think what’s happening with children’s reading is one of the most important questions that libraries can be asking in terms of what they’re doing. So in that sense, I think Tim is asking the right question. Maybe we need a renewed focus on understanding the library’s impact, particularly when it comes to children.

It sounds like you’re saying that you disagree with some of the conclusions of the Freckle Report, but that the statistical trends it calls out are real and of concern.

They’re real trends. I think they’re less negative than Tim Coates thinks they are, because I think the reasons for the decline in the IMLS stats are not due to a decline in attention to children or books but to things like the increase of reading electronically, much of which is not tracked inside the publishing universe, or inside the IMLS or the library universe.

The other thing I will say is that Tim draws a line between the increase in resources devoted to community engagement and declining resources for materials. And I may be overstating his conclusions but he implies that a diversion of resources and focus is responsible for the decline in circulation and children’s reading. I don’t think that’s true at all. Community engagement is enormously important for libraries, particularly engagement with the right kind of partners, such as school districts and other kinds of reading programs. It’s something that we need to keep building on.

While reading the report, it struck me that maybe it’s time to reconsider or augment the statistics IMLS collects. In 2021, how much can we really learn from traditional gate counts and physical circulation measures? Are you thinking about how IMLS might collect different kinds of library data in the future?

We talk about it a lot. Of course, there are some gatekeepers here. The federal government has rules about collecting statistics. Also, our greatest partners are the state data coordinators we work with, and they come in different flavors and sizes depending on the state. But, yes, this is a question we’ve been asking a lot at IMLS, even before I got here. And we want to do a couple of things.

One, we want to increase the timeliness of our data. There’s a two-year-plus lag on our statistics, and we hope to improve on that. ILS system and library card data is essentially real-time data, and we ought to be able to tap into that. Now, that’s a big project and I wouldn’t expect results soon. But eventually we’d like to have something closer to real-time data for certain statistics.

In terms of the statistics we collect, everything is on the table for us in looking at this with our state data coordinators. There’s library card usage, for example, and then there’s community engagement programming, intellectual programming, and civic programming, all of which we need to find ways to measure better. I think that’s important. We are completing a report that we’ve done around the impact of libraries on social wellbeing. How can we measure that? Can we measure that? It’s difficult, but it is possible to create measurements around things like health outcomes, for example.

At the end of the day, though, one of the good things about the data surveys from IMLS is that they include the vast majority of public libraries. And that’s partly because the reporting is relatively easy and standardized. The more questions we ask, the more complicated we make those surveys, the harder it will be for smaller libraries in particular to report. So we have to be mindful of that, too.

Is there anything else you want to bring up?

I think we’ve hit most of the high points, but I do want to stress the importance of libraries as community agents and as mediating institutions.

In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville talked about how the great American strength is the way we associate with each other at the local, community level. We create associations and groups that will respond to any emergency. Well, public libraries in their current form didn’t really exist when de Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America, but they are exactly the kind of thing he was talking about. And I think, in terms of the racial reckoning in this country, in terms of the inequities that we have, in terms of the pandemic response, and our political divisions, we have to redouble our efforts. Libraries are the place where we associate, the place that we trust, where we can come together and talk to each other.

The most important thing that libraries can do is to be that place of community cohesion, of community conversation. Everything else is ephemeral.

Andrew Albanese is a PW senior writer. Nicole A. Cooke is a PW columnist and the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina School of Information Science.