By passing the budget resolution, the U.S. House of Representatives took an important step to invest in the well-being of the American people. We cannot misstep now.
Public libraries provide vital services that would otherwise be unavailable to communities, and they are in need of our attention. Congress set a deadline of Sept. 15 to allocate funding in the budget reconciliation plan, and it’s imperative that libraries are included.
The Build America’s Libraries Act would dedicate $5 billion to libraries nationwide and an estimated $105 million to Washington state for their modernization and renovation. The bill, with more than 175 bipartisan co-sponsors thus far, would pave the way for all communities to build back better, not just those with the most financial resources.
The Evergreen State would benefit from the legislation’s focus on preparing libraries for natural disasters and climate change. It prioritizes sustainable and resilient design so that our buildings will be able to withstand flooding, extreme heat, severe storms and extended power outages.
Like many Washington communities, Seattle Public Library manages six 100-plus- year-old Carnegie libraries. Because of the substantial earthquake risk, these beautiful, but aging, structures have significant infrastructure needs that must be addressed if they are to continue serving patrons into the 21st century. While Seattle voters funded seismic strengthening work for three buildings, the Fremont, Queen Anne and West Seattle branches need the same costly improvements to ensure they, too, can survive. It’s estimated to cost $11 million per branch to seismically retrofit these facilities. The Build America’s Libraries Act could help.
With hotter summers common now in the Puget Sound, retrofitting these buildings with air-conditioning is also critical and costly. Seattle has nine libraries that frequently close during temperature spikes, which translates to no early literacy programs, study areas for students, computer loans, career preparation classes or senior services on those days. The aging HVAC system at the Broadview Branch can no longer keep patrons cool and forces its closure as well.
It’s not just temperature control keeping library patrons away. At the Douglass-Truth and Montlake branches, visitors must navigate steps at the entryway. There’s no ramp for people who use a wheelchair, stroller or walker. The restrooms at the Capitol Hill, Madrona-Sally Goldmark, Montlake, Northeast and Rainier Beach branches aren’t easily accessible either.
The Build America’s Libraries Act would focus on another accessibility issue: broadband. A state-level needs assessment from 2019, looking at our rural, economically distressed counties, totaled $260 million. Thankfully, the state has provided grants for some building issues, but broadband access remains a significant and costly challenge.
Seventy percent of Stevens County residents have no internet access at home. They rely on the Stevens County Library for homework, job applications, business communications, and to connect with family and friends. Yet two branches don’t have high-speed broadband and four need a real boost to meet the community’s needs. Federal funding could have an enormously positive impact by helping libraries increase broadband access.
In Washington, we have more than 4.1 million library card holders. Visits to our 350 public library locations, including 27 tribal libraries and 30 bookmobiles, topped 36 million in 2019. Residents borrowed 86,799,553 books and materials. Program attendance reached nearly 2.5 million people.
It’s clear that libraries are an essential resource for our state’s working families. But facility needs have been multiplying since Congress last dedicated funding for them in 1996. And local governments don’t have the resources to keep up with repairs and renovations, or assist libraries at the level of funding required.
Investing in the Build America’s Libraries Act is a historic investment in our nation’s future. We owe it to the next generation to enhance opportunities for their well-being, happiness and success. Let your federal representatives know how important it is that libraries be included in the budget package. We can — and must — write this new chapter together.