ALA Advocates Library Economic Relief for COVID-19 Closures and Recovery

UPDATE: The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed by President Trump on March 27, and included $50 million for IMLS. This infusion of funds for digital inclusion projects will help support libraries that have had to pivot quickly in their services, ALA stated. 

ALA executive director Tracie Hall at ALA's Congressional Fly-In in February 2020
ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall speaking at February's Congressional Fly-In
Photo courtesy of ALA

On Friday, March 20, the American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office launched an advocacy initiative targeting members of Congress, urging them to support economic relief for libraries in the wake of widespread closures to help slow the transmission of COVID-19. The staff encouraged library advocates to contact their members of Congress, asking them to include libraries in the proposed COVID-19 stimulus plan. ALA proposed a library funding package of well over $1 billion to be delivered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), to be used for purposes ranging from access to digital content and assistive technology to the unanticipated costs of thoroughly cleaning facilities.

ALA's funding proposal was to be part of the Republicans’ $1.8 trillion economic stimulus package. Although negotiations hit an impasse in the Senate on Monday, March 23, and the Democrats countered with their own $2.5 trillion proposal as of Tuesday morning, March 24, as of press time members of the Senate and Treasury reported that an agreement could be imminent.

ALA’s multi-pronged advocacy initiative included letters to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from members of the Washington Office and from the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), requesting that the agency expedite affordable broadband solutions for those who are unconnected. The association has also issued a public statement coauthored and signed by nearly 200 copyright librarians from across the country, acknowledging the strength of Fair Use for emergency remote teaching and research. In addition, the advocacy package included a letter from the National Council of Nonprofits, urging funding stimulus to help the nonprofit sector serve those in need—including library organization such as ALA, state library associations, Friends, and foundations.

 

PIECES OF THE CONGRESSIONAL PACKAGE

At the time that the COVID-19 crisis hit, Washington Office advocates were in the process of wrapping up a successful funding appropriations campaign for IMLS, including the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program. Members were able to pivot quickly to address the need for library funding during and after the pandemic, said Associate Executive Director of Public Policy and Advocacy Kathi Kromer, and members were able to come up with the needed numbers when it was clear that Congress would be moving ahead on a larger effort. The advocacy push on ALA’s part will help ensure that the message reaches decision-makers, who need to understand the services libraries are poised to provide, as they continue to craft and negotiate economic aid packages.

As campuses close and schools and higher ed institutions move their classes online—and overloaded health care providers have begun requesting that those who don’t need hospitalization communicate from their homes, rather than coming to emergency rooms—there is an increasing need to facilitate communications and bridge a significant digital divide.

“Approximately one-quarter of [U.S.] people, including 7 million students, do not have access to broadband service at home,” wrote John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, in the letter to the FCC. “The FCC can take several steps now to promote hotspot lending programs and allow schools, libraries, and telehealth providers to increase their broadband capacity and share that capacity with the surrounding community.” (ALA has recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi open during closures);

Actions that SHLB is encouraging the FCC to take include encouraging internet service providers (ISPs) to expand low-cost broadband service offers and allowing schools and libraries to extend their networks to the home, without losing E-rate money, among others. On Monday evening, the FCC confirmed that community use of E-rate supported Wi-Fi networks is permitted during school and library closures.

 

AGENCY ADMINISTRATION

IMLS was a logical choice to administer the library funding, as it already has the infrastructure in place to disperse funding to states quickly, noted Kromer. “There’s already a mechanism there—we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Working with a range of ALA divisions and comparing funding requests with those of other industries, the Washington Office put together the package in a matter of hours. Among other advantages, the agency has the needed flexibility to disburse money as needed to each state, rather than administering funds by formula; Rhode Island, for example, will have very different needs from California.

In spite of Monday’s deadlock, “things are moving very fast on the Hill,” said Kromer. “We wanted to make sure we got the best information we could pull together as quickly as possible for those folks to consider. We worked with committee staff that have deep background and expertise on this, so they knew what was reasonable.”

While this infusion would be a major change in IMLS’s budget, Kromer believes that Crosby Kemper, the new IMLS director, would be a good steward; Kemper has a finance background as well as years of experience at the helm of Kansas City Public Library, MO. “There is a lot of confidence on ALA's side, and I believe also from the Hill, that we have the right leader [in IMLS] at this time,” Kromer told LJ, “and that he would make sure all of those dollars were spent well and accounted for.”

The Washington Office has been talking with the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), said Kromer. State librarians have been consulting with their senators; Jack Reed (D-RI) has been instrumental in spearheading ALA’s package on the Senate side. (Although ALA had to cancel National Library Legislation Day, the association was able to conduct its Congressional Fly-In in February, before the Capitol complex was closed to visitors.)

As of press time, the components of ALA’s request include:

  • $300 million for recovery centers in libraries, which will help community members seek employment and develop new skills, as well as helping establish and develop small businesses. Funding will go to an estimated 1,500 public and academic libraries in the nation’s hardest-hit areas for two years;
  • $175 million for additional digital content, to be provided during the time of library closures and individuals sheltering in place;
  • $160 million for a total of 400,000 hot spots to loan to individuals or place in bookmobiles and public areas such as parking lots;
  • $79 million for deep cleaning of public and academic libraries before they can return to full service. This funding includes a second cleaning in an estimated 25 percent of the cases;
  • $20 million to help support library community organizations, including several national associations, state and regional library associations, library consortia, and other cooperative bodies—notably, helping to replace lost conference revenue;
  • $1.16 billion in funding to protect core public library services in the face of expected cuts. As state and local government revenues decline in the anticipated downturn of the overall national economy, most public libraries will face budget cuts. With roughly 90 percent of library funding coming from state and local government, ALA anticipates that an average 5 percent cut in budgets will translate into $582 million in library cuts, and 10 percent will be $1.16 billion. ALA is also advocating for minimum state allotments;
  • $25 million for IMLS administration, as there will be additional costs within the agency to oversee and administer these new programs, as well as conduct outreach and communications to the library community.

As negotiations in Washington continue, Kromer told LJ, “We're going to continue to work with our library champions on both sides of the Hill as we move through the process.”

At the same time, she added, Washington Office members are also working on the regular federal budget appropriations process and testimony, which has its own deadline. But making sure that ALA introduces this package in a timely fashion has been critical. “We saw the opportunity to make sure libraries were at the table,” Kromer told LJ, “because things were moving so rapidly.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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