It’s hardly a secret, but it bears repeating: the American Library Association Washington office, the library community’s voice in the political realm, has got some serious game. Well organized and well respected, the ALA Washington office has proved to be a powerful advocate for libraries, and for the public over the last few decades. With a presidential election looming, PW caught up with Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA Washington office, to talk about some of the issues, victories, challenges, and priorities that the ALA anticipates in the coming year.
Let’s start by talking about a legislative victory: the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA], which was touted as a big win for libraries this year. Can you tell us a little about why it’s a win?
Yes, ALA is thrilled that Congress passed ESSA, which marks the first time in over 50 years that school libraries have been expressly included in federal education legislation. It’s a win because we strongly believe that a well-rounded education experience for students must include an effective school library program, and ESSA makes great strides toward ensuring that tens of millions of our nation’s children will get just that. The law encourages local education agencies to help schools develop effective school library programs to teach students digital skills, critical thinking, and to build the reading and research competencies essential to achieve in science, math, and all other STEM fields. ESSA also authorizes the Innovative Approaches to Literacy [IAL] program, and competitively awarded IAL grants by the Department of Education can be used to promote literacy programs in low-income areas. IAL funds can also be used to purchase library resources and underwrite professional development for school librarians.
On the subject of funding, this is a busy season for you: budget time. Can you give us an update on where the federal budget process is and what’s in there for library support?
The president sent his budget request to Congress on February 9, and many Republicans responded that it was “dead on arrival.” Congress will, of course, spend much of the year working on appropriations bills, but, as it stands now, there are proposed cuts in the Library Services and Technology Act [LSTA], which is especially troubling because this is the only source of federal funding for libraries. And because LSTA Grants to States require a state match, federal cuts necessarily are compounded by state cuts, resulting in even fewer dollars for library services.
Cutting LSTA funding means that fewer children will benefit from reading and learning programs; fewer people will get the skills training they need to seek and sustain employment; fewer small businesses can reach markets in order to grow; fewer Americans can search for health-care resources and maintain health records; fewer parents can investigate how to send their children to college and apply for financial aid; and fewer libraries will be able to secure 21st-century technology tools. ALA is now actively advocating that libraries receive at least level funding for fiscal year 2017.
In February, President Obama nominated Carla Hayden—a public librarian—to be the 14th librarian of Congress. As odd as it sounds, Hayden would be the first professional librarian in decades to hold the job full-time. Your thoughts?
ALA is tremendously pleased by the choice of Carla Hayden, who is a past president of ALA. In a letter last year, then-ALA-president Courtney Young urged the president to nominate a professional librarian for the job, and ALA is delighted that has happened.
Looking ahead, the Library of Congress has multiple challenges and opportunities. The internal operations of the library certainly need attention. But there is a path for progress there outlined in the LC’s strategic plan, as well as in a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. At ALA, we look forward to strong leadership by Hayden expanding the Library of Congress’s role, especially when it comes to digital. And we hope to see strengthened outreach and engagement with the library community, as well as the information technology and content industries, including publishing, and with related federal institutions, the research and education community, and the international community.
Speaking of challenges awaiting the next librarian of Congress, a legislative proposal was circulated last year that would remove the Copyright Office from the purview of the Library of Congress and establish it as an independent agency. Do you expect a renewed push to make that happen?
Not a successful one. The Copyright Office’s problems are with funding and technology, not geography. Moving it from the Library of Congress won’t fix its problems. Planning and action will. And, on February 29, the Copyright Office’s new “Provisional Information Technology Modernization Plan and Cost Analysis” outlined how $165 million might be spent to dramatically improve the Copyright Office’s digital infrastructure, technologies, and registration processes. Orchestrating a move in the midst of that modernization would make little sense.
Speaking of copyright, for some time now we’ve been hearing rumbles about copyright reform, including a series of congressional hearings over the last two years—do you have any update on where those efforts stand?
First, without having to change the Copyright Act, the Senate can and should vote to improve the lives of millions here and abroad by immediately consenting to ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, which would put more accessible reading materials into the hands of people with print disabilities. But, to answer your question directly, with the dwindling number of legislative days remaining in this Congress, the odds of any broad reform of the nation’s copyright laws are low, although targeted amendments to the Copyright Act could well be possible.
Regardless of whether Congress takes up broader copyright reform legislation, reform is already is happening. Ordinary people now make up the vast majority of authors and creators today, and what they are doing as both creators and users is reshaping the way copyright law is understood. Developments like open licensing, Creative Commons, and the open access movement, which librarians are leading, are making more information and more resources available to the public than ever before. And none of this means the end of Hollywood or the recording and publishing industries. It simply emphasizes how copyright policy and any changes to the Copyright Act must reflect the interests of everyone, not just the content companies.
Privacy is a core value for libraries, and a value that librarians are often on the frontlines fighting for. After 9/11, for example, the library community rallied against the Patriot Act. And, once again, privacy issues are in the news, with Apple battling the FBI over iPhone encryption. How concerned is ALA with the FBI’s position in the Apple case, and with its implications for libraries?
We’re extremely concerned. Libraries have a direct and immediate stake in the outcome of the Apple iPhone case as patrons increasingly access library materials and resources via their smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices. We will continue to follow this case closely because of the dangerous precedent it poses. As a federal judge in New York just recognized in a very similar case last month, we believe Congress should resolve the matter, and we reject the government’s argument that a vague and more than 200-year-old statute, the All Writs Act, should trump congressional debate and legislation pertaining to when the government can—or perhaps more accurately cannot—conscript a private company’s assistance to gain access to someone’s private information.
In 2015, libraries played a big role in the FCC’s effort to boost broadband access and its plan to ensure net neutrality—any updates on where these issues stand?
Well, the fight for net neutrality is still very much ongoing, both in the courts and in Congress. February 26 marked the one-year anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, for which the American Library Association and a host of library and higher education groups strongly advocated. And the order has been under attack ever since. Oral arguments were heard in December in a legal challenge filed by broadband provider before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and we are now awaiting a decision. And, in Congress, several Republican senators recently introduced legislation that would not only nullify the FCC’s order, but would prohibit the FCC from reissuing or constructing any new rule that would be substantially the same.
On the broadband front more broadly, there are a host of efforts in the works which ALA supports: for example, there are efforts to connect public housing residents to broadband and teach digital literacy skills through the ConnectHome initiative—an expansion of the federal Lifeline program to include support for home broadband access for low-income Americans—and there is a bid to increase available unlicensed spectrum to support Wi-Fi and to connect the growing number of devices that depend on Wi-Fi, from e-book readers to health monitors. With so much library use now happening online, libraries of all types are developing to meet the changing needs of communities across the nation. So we are—and we and must be—on the front lines of developing and implementing strong broadband access and adoption policies and initiatives to ensure opportunity for all Americans in our increasingly digital society.
The ALA’s National Library Legislative Day is coming up—can you talk a little about why it is important?
Yes, National Library Legislative Day is coming up fast, set for May 2–3. This annual two-day event provides advocates with a chance to attend a day-long briefing in Washington, D.C., about current library issues. Experts from various fields provide timely updates and talking points to help prepare advocates. And then, the next day, those advocates go to the Hill with their state delegations to meet directly with members of Congress and their staffs. Last year about 400 library advocates from all 50 states attended.
What we find is that many people love what libraries stand for, but they aren’t always aware of what services modern libraries now provide, or how federal issues like privacy and surveillance legislation can have a negative impact on library patrons. So having advocates attend face-to-face meetings on the Hill helps to bring attention to the issues facing libraries, which is especially important with so many voices clamoring for legislators’ attention. Those interested in attending can search for National Library Legislative Day on the ALA website, where they can find a link to register.
Any other legislative and policy priorities you want to point to for the coming year?
Access to government information: ALA is a strong proponent of an important bill intended to maximize free access to government information, for which members of the public, as taxpayers, have already paid. Late last July the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs unanimously passed the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act [FASTR], by voice vote. Spearheaded by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the bill would make journal articles and other materials stemming from federally funded research freely available to the public no later than one year after their initial publication. ALA also strongly backs the growing momentum in Congress for legislation that would make all Congressional Research Service reports that do not contain confidential information available to the public upon publication, both in print and online.
E-books also remain a subject of importance for ALA. In close cooperation with ALA leadership, ALA’s advocacy on e-books is managed through its Washington office, and during the past several years, ALA has developed working relationships with many publishers, distributors, and others in the publishing ecosystem. While there has been progress in some important areas, such as basic access to e-books from the Big Five publishers, many challenges remain, especially pricing and other unfavorable licensing terms available to libraries. We plan to continue our engagement—in fact, we urge librarians to join us at Book Expo America, in Chicago this year, where ALA will have a set of programming under the rubric of “Libraries Transform.”
And, of course, with a new president to be inaugurated in 2017, ALA is working on proposals and plans to offer to the new administration. On that score, we expect that publisher interests and library interests will have multiple common intersections—for example, promoting literacy—and ALA looks forward to working with the publishing sector in advancing our mutual national interests.