The American Library Association (ALA) is leading the charge to reauthorize a bill that could pump millions of dollars of additional funding into school library programs nationwide. Schools would be able to use the funds to upgrade sophisticated technology systems, connect to statewide electronic databases, and preserve documents digitally, among other things.

The Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) of 1996—part of the larger Museum and Library Services Act—was intended to improve access to learning and information resources by boosting communication between libraries and by making resources more readily available to underserved populations.

Its pending reauthorization stands to increase the amount of federal money available to school and public libraries by as much as $100 million. Given the recent spate of education-related budget cuts and the sheer expense of high-end data storage and information-sharing technologies, library advocates and policy makers agree that current funding levels fall short of rapidly evolving needs.

“School libraries have been neglected for a long time. A lot of collections have been neglected,” said Mary Costabile, ALA’s associate director. “I look at [the reauthorization] as a big step along the way to helping libraries improve.”

Library systems, she said, have had a hard time keeping pace with technology upgrades, including the computerization of archaic card catalogs; access to internet resources, trade journals, and online encyclopedias; and the ability to locate resources using a complex web of computer networks and searchable, statewide databases.

In light of nationwide budget cuts, Costabile said increased funding for school libraries is critical. “It’s so very important,” she said. “The worst that could be done is to not pay attention to this.”

The Senate version of the bill (S. 888)—referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on April 11—would increase funding for school and public library programs from $150 million to $250 million a year, while museum funding would jump from $28.7 million to $41.5 million.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said additional funding for library services would garner national enthusiasm for learning.

“Museums and libraries are rich centers of learning, woven into the fabric of our communities, big and small, urban and rural,” Reed said in a statement promoting the legislation. “Today’s library is not simply a place where books are read and borrowed. It is a place where a love for reading is born and renewed again and again, and where information is sought and discovered.”

The House passed its own version of the bill (H.R. 13) on March 6 by an overwhelming margin of 416-2. Sponsored by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., H.R. 13 authorizes $215 million for libraries and $35 million for museums—meaning if the Senate bill passes as expected, lawmakers from both chambers of Congress will have to work out a compromise on funding.

Still, barring any unforeseen circumstances, school and public libraries stand to benefit from at least $65 million in additional funding.

“We’d like to get it finished as quick as we can,” Costabile said. “I mean, there’s really nothing to fight about here.”

At the district level, some educators predict the reauthorization would herald a new era of library-resource management in schools.

“In the current reauthorization bill, there is certain new language which could open the door to providing more money for multi-use collaboration between school and public libraries,” said Trish Mulkey, assistant director for learning media services at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. “Using funding to maintain records and locations of print resources, as well as linking users to primary source materials, seems like a very equitable and efficient use of federal money.”

Under the new law, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) would hold on to 9 percent of the federal allocation for libraries. A portion of these funds would support the IMLS’s competitive national grant program for research, training, and the digital preservation of library resources, while the rest would be tagged for Native American Library resources and administrative costs.

The remainder of the allocation would be divvied out to states based on a two-step formula. Initially, each state would receive a block grant. The pending reauthorization would double funding for this minimum base allocation, from $340,000 to $680,000 per state. The rest of the money then would be distributed to each state library association based on the state’s overall population.

According to Mamie Bittner, director of public and legislative affairs at IMLS, state library associations would be able to use the appropriations to support statewide initiatives and services. They also could dole out the funds to public, academic, research, school, and special libraries in their state by way of a competitive grants process or through cooperative agreements.

Bittner said each state maintains a five-year plan outlining its library programs. These programs must support the LSTA’s goals, which are to:

  • Establish or enhance electronic linkages among or between libraries;
  • Link libraries electronically with educational, social, or information services;
  • Help libraries access information through electronic networks;
  • Encourage libraries in different areas and different types of libraries to establish consortia and share resources;
  • Pay costs for libraries to acquire or share computer systems and telecommunications technologies; and
  • Target library and information services to persons who have difficulty using a library and to underserved urban and rural communities.

Now that more libraries are beginning to use technology as a means of sharing resources and cataloging data, “a whole new world has opened up,” ALA’s Costabile said. “You wouldn’t think of living without your computer.”

Library funding also would provide schools with technology to preserve historical texts and other valuable documents digitally, so they are easily accessible and withstand the passage of time. “History is full of dead machines that no one knows how to work anymore,” Costabile said. “Keeping the information and storing it is one thing, accessing it is another.”

Sen. Gregg, who chairs the HELP Committee, said the impending reauthorization and its potential increase in funding would position America’s museums and libraries for the future.

“Libraries and museums serve as important cultural institutions in communities all around our nation,” he said. “I benefited from the local library in my community growing up, and by reauthorizing this funding we will continue to ensure the preservation of our libraries and museums for generations to come.”

He continued: “I am also pleased that this bill will coordinate its action with the school library provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. I expect to move this legislation through the HELP Committee soon and look forward to its speedy passage.”

Links:

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee
http://www.senate.gov/~labor

THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet
http://thomas.loc.gov

Institute of Museum and Library Services
http://www.imls.gov