US libraries hope for billions in aid for infrastructure – Commercial Observer


in the In New England, some public library buildings were built around the time the Dewey decimal system was introduced in the 1870s. In Texas, the 2017 Hurricane Harvey flooding is still a problem in library facilities. In California alone, public libraries need at least billions of dollars in repairs.

These terms explain why a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers passed bill last winter that would provide $ 5 billion in funding to upgrade and repair such properties in the United States

The Build America’s Libraries Act would provide assistance to government library systems through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency. These systems, in turn, could provide grants on a competitive basis for everything from better broadband capabilities to future-proof libraries against the effects of climate change to increasing services in underserved communities.

The legislation has so far received little approval. It is still awaiting committee votes, and it is unclear whether it would be a priority in a Congress that is currently dominated by a wider debate on infrastructure. Should the funds reach the libraries and library systems that need them, then rounds of challenges await – navigating approval processes, awarding contracts, setting construction schedules and more – all with the COVID reopening in one year or more.

Still, the editions would represent the largest single editions of the Congress for libraries since 1997.

According to statistics from the American Library Association (ALA), which supports the Build America’s Libraries Act, the country’s 17,000 or so public libraries, covering roughly 210 million square feet, could certainly use the money, as well as a number of other bibliophile groups, such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the labor giants American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The average public library building in the US is more than 40 years old – but that’s just the average in this sometimes forgotten corner of the built environment.

“We have library buildings that were built over 100 years ago,” said Karen Mellor, director of library services for Rhode Island and co-chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies.

Unsurprisingly, the need for repairs in Rhode Island and across the country spans the gamut from seedy HVAC and plumbing systems to crumbling foundations and roofs to persistently flooded basements. There is also an ongoing need to get decade-old homes compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and provide the kind of technological bells and whistles – like tablet ports and phone charging stations – that customers are now expecting.

Even the $ 5 billion in pending legislation would only scratch the surface, especially when upgrades like better broadband are factored in.

“We have about 40 libraries,” said Stephen Chamberlain, senior project manager for the Houston Public Library division that oversees its facilities. “If we do a big renovation a year, we get a full renovation every 40 years. Now we might do more in a few years – in some years two or one and a half. “

This pace means that maintenance and renovation itself, let alone construction, cannot really keep up with demand.

The ALA used assessments from nine states and the District of Columbia that indicated construction and renovation needs of more than $ 8 billion. Projected across the United States, the ALA found that the country’s public libraries are likely to require $ 32 billion in work. California State Librarian Greg Lucas and Santa Monica City Librarian Patty Wong wrote in April that California alone needs nearly $ 6 billion for repairs and construction.

“As it stands, it will take 25 years to meet today’s needs,” said ALA President Julius C. Jefferson Jr. in a May statement on federal law. The same statement called public libraries “as important to our country’s infrastructure as highways and bridges”.

The language was conscious. The infrastructure proposals by the Biden administration and the Republicans in Congress do not include funding for library facilities. However, the general debate surrounding the, in many cases, long-pressing infrastructure needs leaves proponents of libraries optimistic. You are seizing the moment with federal legislation.

For another moment it could not come for decades.

Federal legislation in the 1950s and 1960s established the mechanism and approach for federal funding of public libraries. Both were dependent on the idea of ​​building – that meant new building, new building and new renovation.

Legislation that came into force in 1997 – the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), which is now the only federal program exclusively for libraries – instead focused on just that: services, and especially technology, as the web and the Internet are outsourced to other parts of the world became the country. The LSTA regularly made federal funding available to public libraries, but without this prior emphasis on investment costs and construction.

Legislation currently pending aims to partially correct this by adding LSTA funding and funding from other sources such as states and municipalities. But should that new federal funding come through, implementation could take years and facilities would continue to deteriorate.

Take the District of Columbia public library system straight to the back of Congress. It took 13 years and around $ 500 million to modernize its 26 libraries, including three years and $ 211 million to modernize its flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Part of the longer schedule was the ease of planning and contracting that comes with most public works projects, according to a spokesman for the DC system, while another part was the need for approvals from myriad boards and commissions, including those responsible for monument preservation are responsible.

Even shovels in the ground do not necessarily signal success. The sheer demand for labor can create more labor – and rising material costs and nagging labor shortages in construction caused by COVID are not helping things.

“If you have a major renovation to do, it typically takes about a year to plan and approve and then it can take up to another year to build, depending on the amount of work that needs to be done,” Chamberlain said. of the Houston Public Library, citing cost as a particular problem in managing expectations for library work.

“Let’s say you have a budget, you have a draft, you go and let the contractor do the work and they say, ‘Hey, we’re 10 percent obsolete,'” said Chamberlain. “What will you do? You will either have to go back and cut out the design or you will take it from the next project if you can. And then what did you do with this project? “

The renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC took three years and cost $ 211 million. It reopened in mid-2020. Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The situation creates a kind of doom loop. Systems never really overtake the demand for improvement. Without federal funding, library systems across the country will continue to modernize and repair buildings or build new ones, with a patchwork of local and state funding, private donations, and partnerships. Some of these partnerships include opening in private projects or joint establishment with other government agencies in the region.

The patchwork can fray easily and unexpectedly. Houston voters approved a $ 123 million loan plan for their libraries in November 2017, conditional on refurbishments and construction to boost equity. Hurricane Harvey hit about 10 weeks before the vote and then came COVID. Dealing with these events changed plans and delayed other parts.

“Frankly, without a significant source of funding, we really won’t be able to do what we imagined,” said Nicole H. Robinson, assistant director of administration, strategic partnerships and initiatives at the Houston Public Library, of the 2017 Bond Package.

Right now, the Build America’s Libraries Act is awaiting action from the committee in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate. Inquiries to the offices of its main sponsors, Michigan Rep. Andy Levin and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, were not returned. Library systems are now ready to start and continue projects that require your attention for a long time. You are aware of the cost of the status quo.

“There is no other institution that offers such a range of services to serve Americans of all types and needs,” said Mellor of Rhode Island. “Libraries are neutral places that everyone can use.”

Tom Acitelli can be reached at [email protected]


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