How the American Rescue Plan Act Works for Libraries

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is a $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on March 10. It includes targeted funding for various sectors of the economy and government impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from agriculture to small businesses to education—and libraries. Here are the ins and outs of how new federal funds will reach public libraries and how they can be spent.

The ins and outs of how  new federal funds will reach public libraries and how they can be spent

For additional information, check out our free on-demand webcast on ARPA and the FCC's Emergency Connectivity Fund and register for our free Federal Funding Part 2 webcast on July 13.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is a $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on March 10. It includes targeted funding for various sectors of the economy and government impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from agriculture to small businesses to education—and libraries. In addition to over $360 billion in emergency assistance to state, local, and tribal community governments; $130 billion in an Education Stabilization Fund for K–12 schools; $39.6 billion for college and universities; and $135 million each for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the bill contains two major sources of funding specific to public libraries.

The first such allocation is $200 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), $178 million of which has been distributed directly to the states and territories via a network of State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAAs). Each state, as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, is alloted a minimum of $2 million, while U.S. territories are allotted a base of $200,000. The balance is distributed based on state population, using December 2020 data from the Census Bureau. This funding is intended to provide rapid emergency relief to safely reopen libraries and implement public health protocols, as well as to promote digital inclusion through accessible Wi-Fi, internet hotspots, digital literacy resources, and workforce development opportunities. 

This allocation for IMLS represents a four-fold increase from the $50 million in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020, of which $30 million was disbursed to the SLAAs.
“Libraries have been extremely responsive and adaptive, and I think giving us this money to make available to libraries really is a testament to the work that libraries have done and to their ability to adapt, be innovative, and really meet the needs of their communities, particularly during a time of great distress,” says Cynthia Landrum, deputy director for the Office of Library Services at IMLS. 


While some states will primarily offer competitive or noncompetitive grants to allocate their ARPA allotment, others will focus on funding statewide programs to which libraries can opt in, and many states will offer a combination of these approaches. Each state library’s website is the best source of information for learning how that state is allocating funding and for accessing necessary forms and guidelines. Librarians should also monitor social media, direct mailings, listservs, and messaging from their library director and state library for guidance on how their state will proceed.

In California and Texas, the states receiving the greatest amount of federal funding through ARPA, the emphasis is on statewide programs and leveraging economies of scale to maximize the reach of these funds while minimizing hassle for librarians. Greg Lucas, state librarian of California, highlights a program that will use about 15 percent of the state’s $10 million disbursement to expand hotspot lending by creating kits with devices, headphones, and instructions for libraries across the state. Funding will also be directed to statewide e-resource access, aimed at meeting patrons’ increased expectations for digital services.

Mark Smith, state librarian of Texas, similarly plans for the majority of funds to be allocated at the state level, particularly since most of the state’s CARES Act funds were used for direct grants to libraries. 
“We hope to advance digital inclusion for Texas via increased library bandwidth, providing greater content, and providing digital navigation tools and training for library staff,” Smith says. Less than 10 percent of the state’s $8.4 million ARPA grant is earmarked for direct grants to libraries.

Robin Westphal, Missouri’s state librarian, describes “grant fatigue” brought on by CARES, state-funded pandemic relief, and the annual grants cycle, which has led to a shift in priorities for her state. Roughly half of the ARPA funds in Missouri will go to competitive grants, while the other half will be spent on digital collections, career development, tutoring services, and other statewide programs.

Jen Nelson, state librarian of New Jersey, also reports plans to use ARPA funding to offer statewide access to electronic resources such as online homework assistance, virtual meeting services, and training related to services for the homeless, continuing investments begun with CARES Act funding. About half of New Jersey’s $4 million allocation will be made available through competitive grants to public libraries, ranging from $5,000 to $100,000. 

In North Carolina, the majority of ARPA funds will be allocated through two different competitive grants, similar to the state’s program for distributing CARES Act funds. Libraries can apply for EZ grants to receive up to $25,000 in funding for focused efforts to increase digital access, or for project grants for up to $100,000 in funding for collaborative projects that involve partnerships with local community organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs and faith-based groups.

In Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, among other states, the state library will take a similar approach to the ARPA bill as a whole, distributing a formula-based amount to each public library in the state. In Louisiana, the funding will be divided evenly among the state’s parishes, without any of the grant going to overhead administration costs.

“We like to spend any funds we get as equitably as possible,” Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton says. Priorities for Louisiana include expanding broadband access in rural areas, adding resources for students learning from home, and purchasing connected devices and chargers.

However, even in the case of noncompetitive grants, libraries will have to apply for funding from their SLAA to describe how they intend to use the money and affirm that they will follow the priorities set by IMLS, as well as other standard requirements for receiving federal funds.

On May 26, IMLS announced that an additional $15 million from the $200 million allocation would be opened to competitive grants directly from IMLS for libraries, museums, federally recognized tribes, and nonprofit organizations that primarily serve native Hawaiians, in amounts from $10,000 to $50,000. Unlike the state-allocated grants, these applications required matching funds from libraries and museums. The deadline for submitting applications was June 28.


The second major source of funds available to public libraries is the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) Program, through which $7.17 billion will be used to reimburse schools and libraries for eligible equipment and services that support remote learning. The fund will be administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The program builds on the framework of the FCC’s E-Rate Program, which has provided discounted telecommunications and internet services to libraries and schools since 1997, and is primarily aimed at closing the “homework gap” for students and the “connectivity gap” for library patrons without reliable internet access or equipment at home.

Schools and libraries eligible for support under the E-Rate Program are eligible to apply for support from the ECF Program. They do not have to be current E-Rate participants. All libraries that are eligible for assistance under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) are eligible for both E-Rate and ECF Program support, including tribal libraries.

Institutions not eligible to receive support include for-profit schools and libraries, schools and libraries with endowments in excess of $50 million, libraries whose budgets are not completely separate from schools—if they share a budget, the school must be the one to apply for funds, and a school library could only apply if it had an independent budget—and libraries or library consortia that are not eligible for assistance under LSTA.

According to the Report and Order adopted by the FCC on May 10, the fund will first be used to reimburse purchases of eligible equipment and services made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, for the upcoming school year. The initial 45-day filing window will open on June 29 and close on August 13.. If additional funding remains after this first window, schools and libraries may be able to apply for reimbursement of costs incurred for eligible equipment and services between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

Eligible equipment includes Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices such as laptops and tablets. Desktop computers, mobile phones, and smartphones may not be purchased with ECF funds.
ECF funds can also be used for the purchase of eligible “advanced telecommunications and information services,” which refers to commercial internet access services delivered from a local internet service provider. In addition to the service itself, ECF funds can reimburse libraries for costs of installation, activation, and initial configuration costs, taxes, and fees. 

In areas where no service is available for purchase, libraries can use funding from this program to construct new or self-provisioned networks. However, the FCC’s report makes clear that creating new networks is a limited exception, permitted only if it is absolutely necessary to provide broadband access to library patrons or students.

Some examples of ineligible purchases listed in the FCC’s report include backup power equipment, cybersecurity tools, headsets, video conferencing equipment or software, personnel costs related to purchasing or managing eligible equipment and services, and equipment or services purchased before March 1, 2020.

The FCC defines “reasonable costs” for eligible equipment and services, beyond which a library cannot be reimbursed. This does not mean that a purchase above the reasonable cost is ineligible for support. Rather, if a library spends $500 on an item for which the FCC defines the reasonable cost as $400, it is eligible for a $400 reimbursement. Further, libraries can request waivers of the reasonable support amount if required to meet the needs of users with disabilities.

These reasonable costs are $400 for a connected device and $250 for a Wi-Fi hotspot. There are no defined reasonable costs for modems, routers, or devices that combine modems and routers. For internet services, no limit is set, but an approximate limit is defined at $25 per month. 

To apply for ECF funding, applicants must register their library in the System for Award Management (SAM), a web-based, governmentwide application that collects, validates, stores, and disseminates business information related to federal awards, grants, and electronic payment processes. Most libraries that have applied for other sources of federal funding will already be registered in SAM, but E-Rate users will not have been automatically registered. 

Once registered, libraries will use a new portal to apply for ECF funding, which will be separate from but similar to the E-Rate Productivity Center (EPC) and will utilize many of the same application forms. This will streamline the application process by pulling data from the EPC for libraries already enrolled in E-Rate. Unlike E-Rate, libraries will not be required to engage in the federal competitive bidding process to receive ECF funding; they only need to comply with their state and local procurement requirements.

The FCC will be offering webinars, online training, and dedicated customer service to support schools and libraries in navigating the ECF application process, according to an FCC official.

Beyond these two targeted sources of funding, resourceful public librarians may find additional ways to benefit from ARPA. 

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to build partnerships with other government agencies, and to think about how these funds can be spent in a way that benefits the larger community,” Nelson says. She encourages librarians to explore collaborations with their county or state governments that have also received targeted ARPA funding to execute projects that may not meet IMLS funding priorities but still work to support their communities during and after the pandemic.     


Find your state library’s website:

Read the FCC Report and Order:

Read the ALA breakdown of the FCC Report and Order:

Register for a SAM account to receive ECF funding:

Apply for IMLS funding:

Use the ALA ECF toolkit:

Elizabeth Kobert is a Processing Archivist at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York.

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