Congress approved a measure Sept. 16 that earmarks more than $232 million a year for school and public libraries and increases the base amount that states could receive to upgrade sophisticated library technology systems–from online card catalogs to electronic research databases.

The bill (H.R. 13), which was signed into law by President Bush Sept. 25, reauthorizes the Museum and Library Services Act through the year 2009. Of chief concern to school technology leaders is the portion of the law known as the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) of 1996, which was intended to improve access to information by boosting communication between libraries and by making resources more readily available to underserved populations.

The new law is the result of a bipartisan compromise between House and Senate lawmakers that ratchets up the amount of money school and public libraries could receive for technology in the fiscal year 2004 budget by $82 million–from $150 million to $232 million. The legislation also authorizes $38.6 million for museum funding, which was capped last year at $28.7 million.

Library advocates who support the increase have said additional spending is necessary to offset the pain of recent education-related budget cuts and to keep up with the sheer expense of implementing new high-end data storage and information-sharing technologies.

In schools, the money could be used to spur all sorts of technology upgrades, from the computerization of archaic card catalogs to the addition of electronic trade journals and encyclopedias, as well as the integration of searchable, statewide databases. In addition, the measure ensures that library activities are coordinated with activities under the No Child Left Behind Act.

While the final authorization falls below the $250 million approved earlier this year in the Senate’s version of the bill (S. 888), it exceeds the $215 million figure agreed on in March by the House.

Mary Costabile, associate director for the American Library Association (ALA)–the group credited with leading the charge for the law’s reauthorization–said it was good to see lawmakers so actively enjoined in the rare bipartisan act of compromise. “We’re really very pleased,” she said. “You’ve really got to give a lot of credit to both sides of the aisle here.”

Still, the authorization of funds is a far cry from the actual appropriation of them, she added. Although the ALA commends Congress for recognizing the need for additional spending, whether or not the federal government actually has deep enough pockets to fulfill the promise remains to be seen. Those negotiations are still under way, Costabile said.

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 up among states based on a two-step formula. Initially, each state would receive a block grant. The 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, the passage of this law “is the result of tremendous effort on the part of librarians and of people who use libraries across the country.”

In related news, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a champion of school libraries and co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the IMLS bill, floated a “Dear Colleague” letter to senators asking them to support the higher House-approved funding levels for the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program–part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–as well as LSTA and the Museum Services Act during the upcoming conference on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill.

So far, according to the ALA, only Sens. Kennedy, D-Mass., Kerry, D-Mass., Lautenberg, D-N.J., Corzine, D-N.J., Stabenow, D-Mich., Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Edwards, D-N.C., Johnson, D-S.D., and Biden, D-Del., have signed on.

See these related links:

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

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