When I was growing up in the early 1960s, a bookmobile arrived every other Friday in my hometown of South Fallsburg, N.Y., a small community about 100 miles northwest of New York City. On those days, my mother would send me off with the New York Times bestseller list and her highlighted selections, and I would take out as many books as I could carry home to satisfy two weeks of obsessive family reading, until the next bookmobile visit.

Books would become essential to my childhood. But as I wrote in a previous column, when I was growing up I had little idea that children’s books even existed. My small hometown did not have a public library. And my parents did not have the resources to create a home library for four kids. But books were always around, so I learned to read early and I would eagerly read whatever my mother and older sister were reading—series books like Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden detective books and Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton mysteries, and the fiction and nonfiction that my mother loved: Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis and Cheaper by the Dozen by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

What I would learn later in life is that my love of books and reading was in fact made possible with help from the federal government. My family’s bookmobile benefactor was funded by the 1956 Library Services Act—a groundbreaking piece of federal legislation that expanded library service to rural communities, created new library systems, and strengthened existing state library networks. In 1964 this legislation morphed into the Library Services and Construction Act, part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The program was life changing for me, as it was for millions of Americans.

In the 1970s, however, federal support for libraries began to wane. And even though the Library Services and Technology Act established the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Service) in 1996, federal funding for libraries has never really recovered the momentum of the early 1960s. Over the past three decades, library supporters have had to fight hard virtually every year just to maintain modest levels of federal support.

Once in a lifetime

The last 18 months with Covid-19 has been a historically difficult period. But with the rollout of safe and incredibly effective vaccines, we can now see the way forward. And if there is a silver lining as we prepare to hopefully come out of this pandemic, it is that the important work of libraries has once again gained the attention of Congress.

In 2020, lawmakers appropriated an additional $50 million in relief funding to be distributed to libraries via the IMLS through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). And in March of 2021, IMLS received another $200 million boost to distribute via the American Rescue Plan Act the largest single investment in the agency’s 25-year history.

Building on that support, Congress last month approved significant increases in annual federal library funding in the FY2022 budget, including a $25 million increase for the IMLS that includes a $9 million increase for the LSTA (the Library Services and Technology Act); a $3 million increase in IAL funding (Innovative Approaches to Literacy); an additional $37 million for the Library of Congress, and new funding for Native American libraries, as well as other institutions that serve diverse populations, including historically black colleges and universities.

These increases are the result of months of hard work by ALA advocates and library supporters. And that work continues. The House’s package of seven spending bills is now with the Senate, which will need to pass them by October 1, or pass a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.

ALA must focus on harnessing the power of our members, supporters, and allies to ensure that the commitment lawmakers are now showing libraries becomes permanent.

After years of advocacy work by the library community, the pandemic has finally made support for universal broadband access a priority as well.

The Emergency Educational Connections Act, passed in March as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, provided a one-time $7.17 billion appropriation to connect students and library patrons struggling with internet access issues. And in July, ALA officials applauded the introduction of the SUCCESS Act, which, if passed, would provide an additional $8 billion annually to libraries and schools over five years—$40 billion in total—to support things like Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and internet-enabled devices to students, staff, and library patrons.

Also on the table is the Build America’s Libraries Act (S. 127/H.R. 1581), a bill that would earmark $5 billion in funding for library construction and renovation in communities across America. And, of course, there is the most important piece of legislation of all: a potential multi-trillion dollar infrastructure package. This once-in-a-lifetime legislation absolutely must include support for libraries and library services. After all, the fabric of America is stitched together with the more than 116,000 libraries of all types, critical infrastructure indeed.

In 2021, libraries are at an inflection point. With billions in federal funding at stake to build, rebuild, and to reinvest in America’s libraries and library services, library supporters must see this moment for what it is: an opportunity to truly transform libraries and the future of federal library support.

I call on library leaders, including ALA, to recognize that in this moment advocacy is the key to the future of libraries. In the coming months, ALA must focus on harnessing the power of our members, supporters, and allies to ensure that the commitment lawmakers are now showing libraries becomes permanent.

Vital to this effort, I believe ALA must increase support for its Office for Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, D.C. (formerly known as the Washington Office). Over the years, this office has proven to be a tremendous asset to the library community, delivering significant legislative and policy wins with limited resources. With so much now on the line, ALA leaders must ensure that the support is there to strengthen existing relationships in Congress, develop new relationships with national leaders and federal agencies, and to work effectively in partnership with our allies—including the publishing industry.

And I call on publishing leaders and authors to join library supporters in our advocacy efforts. One of the key takeaways from the pandemic is that it is time to finally come to an equitable resolution to the decade of tension that has permeated the library e-book market. With access to physical library collections restricted by the pandemic in 2020, digital lending in libraries surged—and yet, so too did publishers’ consumer sales. That's because libraries, publishers, and authors are partners in the reading enterprise. And the data from the last 18 months only reinforces my long-held belief that if we all pulled more in the same direction in the digital market, everyone would benefit: authors, publishers, libraries, and especially readers.

Marching on Washington

I offer kudos to ALA for the hard work that has gone into hosting three successful, major online conferences over the last year, including the excellent 2021 annual conference this past June.

The ALA 2021 Annual Conference opening with Amanda Gorman, Loren Long, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden was worth the price of admission alone. And I appreciated the extensive educational program, where I learned a lot about a range of topics, including librarianship in the age of Covid-19, and the need to prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion in libraries, in librarianship, and in our communities.

But where, I must ask, was advocacy? Where was the track or, better yet, the all-conference, no-conflict session that had us cheering for the current success in securing huge increases in federal funding, trumpeting how this funding will be used to help our communities, and strategizing about how we can take libraries to the next level? Sure, there were committee meetings hosted by advocacy and legislative groups. But in light of current events, I believe advocacy demands a much more prominent role.

No question, virtual conferences and meetings have presented an opportunity for greater engagement from ALA members who were previously excluded from traveling to ALA conferences, something ALA must and will surely continue to build on post-pandemic. At the same time, it feels like serendipity that next year’s ALA Annual Conference is scheduled to kick off in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2022.

With the delta variant currently surging among the unvaccinated, ensuring the safety of our library workers and our communities remains our top priority. But with any luck (and a lot of hard work) vaccination levels will rise sharply in the coming months, and we will finally turn the tide against Covid-19. And I urge ALA leadership to start now in preparing the association’s members, vendors, publishers, and affiliates to arrive in Washington, D.C., in 2022 with a powerful rallying cry: libraries have proven we are essential, and we must be funded like we are essential.

In the 1960s, a federally funded biweekly bookmobile made huge difference in my life. Just think of the difference we can make in people’s lives with today’s powerful information technology, and with the kind of major government investments now on the table. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by. 

PW columnist Sari Feldman is an ALA policy fellow, the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).