The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a $3.5 trillion budget framework that paves the way for vast investments in the nation’s social and physical infrastructure. But with a September 15 deadline looming for legislators to earmark how that money will be spent, the most critical advocacy work in a generation now faces library supporters seeking a potentially game-changing, once-in-a-lifetime funding boost for the nation’s libraries.
In an advocacy alert this week, the American Library Association urged library supporters to move quickly in urging their legislators to include funding for libraries in the bill.
“The total amount of the bill is $3.5 trillion, and the technical term for that is: 'a lot of money,’” said Gavin Baker, ALA deputy director for public policy and government relations. “Congressional leaders have called this a transformational piece of legislation, and they are really trying to do a lot in this one package.”
But the process, Baker explains, is not exactly standard procedure. With the Senate and House now having passed their own spending bills, Congress will use the budget reconciliation process to approve a final budget, a maneuver that allows the Senate to bypass filibuster rules and bring the final measure to a straight up or down vote.
“This is a little bit outside your standard Schoolhouse Rock process,” Baker told PW. “It gives the different committees of Congress a certain amount of money to spend, totaling $3.5 trillion, and it tells the committees to figure out how to spend this money and send us legislation to that effect no later than September 15.”
In other words, with the resolution passed this week Congress has decided on the size of the pie, Baker explains. Now it’s up to the committees to decide how to slice it up. And while September 15 is the deadline on paper, Baker stresses that library supporters must act swiftly.
“The reality is some aspects of this are likely to be done and decided prior to September 15, so the next two weeks are really the most crucial. At the same time, September 15 is likely not going to be the end of the process, so it is likely we will continue working on this after September 15. But the further along the process goes, if you’re if you’re not in it, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to get into it,” Baker said.
In an August 6 column urging librarians to redouble their advocacy efforts, PW columnist Sari Feldman said the budget bill represents an inflection point for libraries.
“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,” Feldman wrote. “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.”
Baker agrees that libraries are on the cusp of a “transformational” moment.
"We spent the last four years of the Trump administration working to keep IMLS from being eliminated and that was highly motivating to so many people in the library community who understand how crucial that funding is,” he said. “Well, the amount of money we’re talking about in the Build America‘s Library’s Act alone, for example, is about 25 times the amount that libraries get from IMLS every year. We’re talking about getting the equivalent of the next quarter century of federal library funding potentially in one fell swoop.”
Indeed, the Build America’s Libraries Act is one of the pieces of legislation the library community has been advocating for in 2021. Sponsored by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), it would provide $5 billion to address the critical infrastructure needs of America’s libraries.
This week, Build America’s Libraries Act (H.R. 1581) got a huge boost, with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ endorsement. “The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is proud to endorse the bicameral, bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act,” said chair Raul Ruiz, in a statement. “Libraries across our country need funding to make critical updates to their facilities and to help ensure equitable access to language and accessibility tools, information services, and career and research services."
In a statement, ALA president Patty Wong praised the endorsement. “We’re thrilled the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has joined the broad and growing support for these crucial investments in libraries,” Wong said. "As Congress prepares the Build Back Better budget package, libraries must be included.”
The Build America's Libraries Act now has 149 bipartisan cosponsors in the House, 30 cosponsors in the Senate, and has been endorsed by more than 30 organizations, including ALA, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, North America’s Building Trades Unions, and the American Federation of Teachers.
Baker, meanwhile, told PW that while ALA is strongly advocating for the Build America’s Libraries Act, the broader goal is for libraries to secure funding for renovation and reconstruction.
“The details of the legislation are not nearly so important here as the amount of funding,” Baker explained. “It’s not inaccurate to say that we want the Build America’s Libraries Act to be passed, but it’s a little more accurate to say that we want the funding for the Build America’s Libraries Act to be included in this package. Basically, the ask is for Congress to include funding for library renovation and construction in the budget reconciliation package equivalent to the Build America’s Library’s Act.”
Library supporters can visit the ALA’s Office for Public Policy and Advocacy for resources on how to contact and engage with their local representatives. And library leaders are encouraging a robust effort from library supporters given the transformational impact the potential boost to library funding now on the table could have in communities across the nation.
“Congress is calling this reconciliation bill the Build Back Better package, which I think is a perfect fit for exactly what this bill is about for libraries,” Baker said. “The pandemic has really highlighted how much libraries can adapt and how libraries can still provide crucial services even if nobody is in the building. But it has also highlighted just what is missing if we’re not there with that physical presence. I’ve had so many people say to me how they can’t wait to get back into the library, that they miss bringing their kids there, or just going there and feeling the vibrancy of the community and seeing their friends and neighbors. We’ve all been so disconnected during this pandemic. With this funding, not only can we repair the damage of the pandemic, we will be able to make our buildings and our facilities stronger, safer, more efficient, more accessible, and more sustainable than they ever have been."