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From steel to fiber, libraries are American infrastructure


Last week President Biden introduced his ambitious plan to reimagine the economy, create millions of jobs and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. He pitched the plan in Pittsburgh, not far from the first U.S. library opened by steel magnate and legendary philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. More than a century ago, Carnegie recognized that libraries were as central to the infrastructure of a nation as the steel he produced.

Unfortunately, that first Carnegie library in Braddock, Pa., reflects so much of America’s neglect of infrastructure over the past decades. By the 1970s, the library was closed, and nearly razed, because it had fallen into such disrepair.

Thankfully, though, that story has a happy ending: the community rallied to preserve and restore the library. Today, the building is a National Historic Landmark — still in use as a library — and a campaign is underway to upgrade the facilities to continue serving users for the next century.

While the Braddock Carnegie Library is special, it’s a common tale for libraries across the country: preserving our history while building for the future. The nation’s more than 16,000 public libraries have long been a road to educational and economic opportunity. We’ve long underinvested in this crucial infrastructure, but change could soon be around the bend.

When we do invest in library facilities, the dividends are remarkable. In 2013, the school district in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a city whose population is 92 percent Black — had the lowest third grade reading scores in the state. When the more than 50-year-old public library in the city was replaced, the new building added space for more youth programs and computers. These modern facilities allowed the library and school district to partner on a new after-school tutoring program. By 2019, 100 percent of the district’s third grade students passed the state reading assessment.

Investing in libraries changes lives in rural as well as urban communities. In New Mexico, six Tribal libraries partnered to deliver high-speed Internet connections to remote, underserved communities. Now, those libraries can offer access to distance learning and telehealth appointments.

Despite success stories like these, funding for such investments — like other infrastructure needs — has been hard to come by. In fact, Congress last provided dedicated funding for library facilities in 1996. (To put that in context, AOL began offering unlimited internet access a few months later.) As a result, the average U.S. public library building is more than 40 years old.

America’s aging library infrastructure, and the lack of funding to modernize it, means that unfortunately, many libraries still are not fully accessible to people with disabilities. In Randolph, Vt., the public library was finally able to install an accessible bathroom last year. Down the road in Weston, there’s still no bathroom at all.

While many of our libraries were built for a different era, they were also built for a different climate. The public library in Coos Bay, Ore., is slowly sinking into the ground, a problem exacerbated by increasingly extreme patterns of rainfall and drought. There are cracks in the library’s ceiling beams and support posts; no part of the building, located in a tsunami zone, has any seismic reinforcement. 

While these challenges are significant, the upcoming infrastructure package is a critical opportunity to rebuild a new generation of lifelong learning centers with the tools to help all Americans succeed — and be competitive in the global economy.

There is a ready way for Congress to address these issues — and create jobs for American workers in the process. The bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act (H.R. 1581 / S. 127) would begin to address decades of underinvestment by providing funds to repair and construct modern library facilities in high-poverty and underserved communities. The bill has more than 100 co-sponsors and has attracted endorsements from organizations ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Afterschool Alliance and the National Association of Counties. The bill also was included in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) Economic Justice Act package introduced last year.

President Biden has said that the one word that defines America is “possibilities.” Every day, libraries are working to expand possibilities for children and adults across the country, but too often, our infrastructure is holding us back. As Congress looks to modernize the country’s infrastructure, it’s time to fix the cracks, install toilets, connect the wires, and build the world’s best libraries for our kids and grandkids.

Julius C. Jefferson, Jr. is American Library Association president.

Tags Chuck Schumer Joe Biden Public library

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