Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama and Libraries

By Debra Lau Whelan -- School Library Journal, 11/4/2008

It may be too soon to know how high libraries will fare on President-elect Barack Obama’s agenda, but it’s safe to say that the profession has a special place in the heart of the next president of the United States.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington office, says she’s confident that Obama will recognize the “importance of what we do” because he has a track record of supporting libraries in the past. Take, for instance, his address to ALA in June 2005.

“The library has always been a window to a larger world—a place where we've always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American story forward,” he told the audience.

And speaking at the Democratic Convention in 2004, Obama voiced his concern about the Patriot Act and privacy issues by saying, "We don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States." The law, enacted in 2001, allows the government to secretly request and obtain library records.

But Obama’s real support for libraries will be apparent when it comes to renewing funding for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). Currently up for Congressional reauthorization, President Bush has already proposed $220 million in LSTA funding for 2009, a figure that includes $171.5 million, which allows the implementation of a formula that allows each state to receive at least $680,000 in base funding for libraries, says Sheketoff.

The same goes for how well Obama will fund the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program, which provides federal grants to high-need media centers to purchase up-to-date books and technology and provide professional development training to librarians. The program, originally authorized at $250 million, is currently funded at $19.4 million. It was funded at $20 million in 2003—the highest amount—but that’s no where near the $100 million that’s needed to transform it from a competitive grant to a formula grant, allowing each state to receive money, Sheketoff adds.

ALA has already informed Obama’s “domestic policy people” about the organization’s recent one-time request of $100 million in stimulus funding from Congress to “stem the bleeding” of critical library cutbacks and closures during these difficult economic times. Public libraries depend heavily on local property taxes to maintain operations, and increased foreclosure rates, lower home values, and fewer home sales have sharply reduced available funds, forcing libraries to cut services and hours, says ALA.

It’s still unclear whether Congress, which comes back on November 17, will pass a second economic stimulus bill. “But if they do another stimulus package, we hope to be a part of that,” Sheketoff says. “They did one for Wall Street. Hopefully, now they’ll do one for Main Street.”

Another item that ALA hopes Obama will look into is the connectivity issue and making sure that libraries have access to bandwidth. “In rural America, there’s inadequate bandwidth because there’s infrastructure,” says Sheketoff. “And in urban America, there’s not enough money for bandwidth.”

A recent ALA study shows that 73 percent of all libraries nationwide provide the only free Internet access in their communities—and in rural areas the rate rises to 83 percent.

“America’s free public libraries provide a lifeline for citizens in need across the country,” says ALA President Jim Rettig.

Obama’s past comments about the Patriot Act leaves ALA hopeful that the new administration will explore ways to make sure the law has “meaningful judicial and congressional oversight and eliminate all administrative subpoenas asking for library records,” Sheketoff adds.