There’s an old proverb: If you plant a tree, it provides shade for generations. As Congress prepares a budget package aimed at expanding opportunity, we must plant the tree of knowledge by rebuilding our nation’s libraries.
America’s 16,000 public libraries are footholds for working families, especially during uncertain times. They’re centers of lifelong learning, job training, digital access and lifeline services for folks from all walks of life. But our libraries are in fragile shape, and in many communities, they’re falling behind — or falling apart.
The busiest library branch in America is in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. In 2019, it welcomed 1.7 million visitors — more than the season-long attendance of the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets combined. In addition to providing internet access, technology workshops and job readiness classes, more recently it was New York City’s second-busiest COVID-19 vaccination center. That is, until the library announced last month that it must close indefinitely due to the failure of the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
The public library in Bisbee, Ariz., is smaller but no less vital to its community. It was named the Best Small Library in America in 2019. At 114 years old, the library is an architectural gem that has served the public longer than Arizona has been a state. However, roof leaks have destroyed library books, and the building’s spacious veranda has been deemed unsafe. During extreme heat, the library has to rely on swamp coolers, which add moisture and that can further damage books.
Big or small, libraries work hard to help all Americans succeed in the global economy, thrive in school and stay connected with their family and community. Parents bring babies to library storytime programs to cultivate early literacy. Technology coaching at libraries helps ensure seniors won’t be left out in our increasingly digital world. Free homework help and after-school tutoring provide a leg up for students — especially urgent now to address the pandemic learning gap.
While libraries are committed to promoting equity and inclusion, sometimes the buildings we operate in create barriers. The library in Whitehall, N.Y., located just outside the Adirondacks, was built during the Civil War. The children’s room is in the basement, with no elevator. If your child uses a wheelchair, you’d have to carry them downstairs.
In Williams, Ore., the library didn’t have a bathroom until a port-a-potty was placed outside last year so the librarian could wash her hands during the pandemic. How can a kid browse for their new favorite book if there’s nowhere to take a bathroom break?
Extreme weather and natural disasters also interfere with libraries’ ability to deliver needed services. Due to an old HVAC system, the library in Arlington, Wash., has to close on hot days and when wildfire smoke lingers. When storms pass over Portsmouth, Va., the library’s outdated electrical system can lose power.
Yet, when funding is available, libraries are also leading the way to improve energy efficiency and combat climate change. Under construction now, a new library in Barboursville, W.Va., will be the first in the state powered by geothermal energy.
The budget reconciliation package offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that libraries in every community can meet the needs of working families.
The Build America’s Libraries Act would provide $5 billion to modernize and repair our public libraries. It’s crucial that these funds are included in the reconciliation bill.
Congress last dedicated construction funding for libraries in 1996, but many members believe it’s time for that to change. The bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act has 149 co-sponsors in the House and 30 in the Senate, including a majority of the Democratic Caucus in both chambers. The bill has also been endorsed by over 30 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, MomsRising and the National Association of Counties.
Investing in libraries is investing in America’s future. To return to the old proverb, we must plant that tree now, so our children and their children can thrive in its shade.
Patty Wong is the president of the American Library Association and director of Santa Monica Public Library in Santa Monica, Calif. She has worked in numerous public libraries in California and serves part time on the faculty of the San Jose State University iSchool.