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Post-Conference Debrief with ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office

by James Takeshita, Policy Associate American Library Association, jtakeshita@alawash.org on July 20, 2023

ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy (PPA) office covers a lot of territory. Whether it’s a push to ensure libraries receive federal funding, explaining the role library professionals play in continuing education and entrepreneurship, encouraging the expansion of affordable high-speed internet to all parts of the U.S., or helping library workers to defend their communities from book banning measures, PPA keeps busy year-round.  

This year’s annual conference in Chicago was no exception. ALA and Unite Against Book Bans (UABB) held a Rally for the Right to Read which opened the annual conference with a message of defending freedom of use for library patrons and fighting back against increasingly harsh efforts to ban books and restrict information access. Keynote speaker and bestselling author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi galvanized the audience, reminding attendees that censorship and book banning have been used as tools of oppression throughout U.S. history—present-day efforts included. An anti-censorship panel also addressed the audience, including Leila Green Little, lead plaintiff in Little vs. Llano County, an ongoing lawsuit to prevent local officials from targeting and removing books they disagree with. “It’s good for people to hear stories from others and know they aren’t alone when facing these challenges,” one attendee noted. “Support is out there.” The Intellectual Freedom Awards were also presented at the rally.  

At the Opening General Session, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel took the stage to share news with ALA attendees about her new initiative, “Learn Without Limits,” which will provide money through E-rate for public and school libraries and schools to lend hotspots. Learn Without Limits also supports Wi-Fi on school buses. Her remarks noted the good work libraries did during the pandemic with the Emergency Connectivity Fund to advance digital equity.  

The program “Fostering Economic Opportunity and Advancement with Innovative Programming” was presented by Andrea Levandowski, Geeta Halley, and Jennifer Byrnes, and was moderated by PPA Deputy Director Megan Janicki. This program discussed specific applications of tools from the Libraries Build Business (LBB) initiative, teen social entrepreneurship in New Jersey, a business pitch competition in Round Rock, Texas, and Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County’s partnership with cannabis business incubator HempLab NYC. This panel illustrated the versatility of library-based small business support, with the hope of empowering attendees to foster opportunity in their communities. 

The session “Libraries as ‘Spokes’ in an Entrepreneurial Hub” discussed the findings and impact of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP). With the overall goal of supporting entrepreneurship and improving access to business support resources, CNPP provides funding to centralized organizations—hubs—that in turn partner with community-level institutions—spokes—to improve access to SBA and other government resources related to small business support. The session’s panel was comprised of representatives of libraries selected to act as spokes: Rachael Svoboda (Laramie County Library System, WY) and Stephen Boss (University of Wyoming Library), Nathaniel Burnard (Allen County Public Library, IN), and Leah Patterson (Central Arkansas Library System), as well as SBA District Director Amy Lea. Janicki moderated this session. Findings from this ongoing program have shown that working with federal grants can be challenging—but the benefits are shared among users, library systems, and existing small business support organizations. Access to additional funding, increased visibility of projects, and networking opportunities have proven that a public library can be a valuable partner and improve the reach and resources of existing small business programs. 

The program “Leveraging Federal Funds to Advance Digital Equity” handled a different type of community improvement measure—broadband access and improvement. With moderation by ALA Broadband Consultant Michelle Frisque, the program comprised of presentations by National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Digital Equity Director Angela Thi Bennet, Georgia State Librarian and COSLA President Julie Walker, Library Services Director, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Ben Miller, and PPA and PLA Deputy Director Larra Clark. Attendees were provided with the terminology, data, and resources to expand their library’s involvement in digital equity measures. In addition to programs such as E-rate, funding available from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has resulted in an increase in programs aimed at providing broadband access—as well as fostered numerous creative actions libraries can take to advance digital equity. Angel Thi Bennet provided an overview of the roles the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program (BEAD) and Digital Equity Act (DEA) are poised to play, with $42.5 billion to build high-speed Internet infrastructure and $2.75 billion specifically to improve access in underrepresented communities. Bennet also reminded attendees that NTIA recognizes and encourages the role of libraries in identifying areas of focus: “Not just basic skills but challenging the [perception] of what we can accomplish and ensure the neighborhoods we serve are connected.” Ben Miller discussed the library’s role in conducting ACP outreach, helping patrons to register for the program, and ultimately establishing his library as a digital navigator. Julie Walker emphasized the roles of state libraries, including Arizona’s Digital Inclusion Directory—a website providing free tutoring and technical support resources—as well as promoting ACP adoption efforts in the state of Georgia and grant procurement successes in Nebraska and New Jersey. 

The session “E-Rate Innovations: Fostering Access to Underserved Communities” provided attendees with updates and applied uses of the E-rate program. (The E-rate program, using funding from the Universal Service Fund, provides discounts for internet access and related connectivity expenses for schools, libraries, and other eligible community anchor institutions.) Massachusetts E-rate Coordinator, and Chair of ALA’s E-rate Task Force, Paul Kissman, moderated the panel and introduced ALA Senior Fellow Bob Bocher and Kentucky Technology Consultant Lauren Abner. Bocher provided updates on E-rate, including proposed changes for Tribal, small, and rural libraries, and additional cybersecurity measures, as well as PPA’s work on these issues.  

Lauren Abner provided attendees with examples of how libraries can use E-rate funding to improve access to high-speed internet and community resources. Abner discussed the use of library kiosks— installations that act as service points maintained outside a normal library building to provide access to library resources and improve the range of service in situations where funding and staffing for a new library or branch isn’t possible. “The community said they wanted the library to be involved in improving internet access,” said Abner, referring to Trimble County Public Library. “[They] decided to see if they could create locations elsewhere in the county…there are several other small towns where access isn’t easy.” In tandem with existing models, such as hotspot-equipped bookmobiles, practical and creative uses of E-rate funding in Kentucky can serve as an example for future applicants. 

News You Can Use: Navigate State and Federal Policy Obstacles for Transformation” opened with an overview by ALA’s Committee on Legislation Chair Ed Garcia on the status of library-related policies: despite challenges to library funding at national and state levels and local-level threats towards libraries over books and freedom of information, it is still possible to advocate for libraries and navigate what has become an increasingly confrontational environment. Garcia introduced Committee on Library Advocacy Chair Stephen Yates, National Coalition for Literacy Executive Director Deborah Kennedy, and ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone, asking each questions about how members can engage in government decisions at the state level, the impact of libraries on improving adult literacy and workforce development, and ways for members to engage with members of their community on issues ranging from funding and library infrastructure to programs supporting returning veterans. The panel also addressed ongoing escalations in book bans and challenges: “If you want to prevent people from having power, you take away their ability to read and know what’s going on,” said Kennedy. “[Book bans] are another way of cutting off access to those who need it most.” Deborah Caldwell-Stone noted that there has been a good response to the idea that individuals should make their own choices about what they read, but state-level policies have been attempted allowing private citizens to bring lawsuits against a library can evade constitutional review and force removal of books. 

In addition to event programs, PPA staff contributed to ALA committee meetings, including the Committee on Legislation (COL), discussing topics such as appropriations in Congress, the Right to Read Act, and the ongoing FCC nominations. Joint sessions between COL, the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), and the Committee on Library Advocacy (COLA) yielded discussion on increased coordination in order to better confront challenges to libraries. The Information Technology Policy Advisory Committee (ITPAC) meeting was also briefed on FCC nominations, updates to ALA’s digital equity resources, and upcoming E-rate enhancement opportunities. PPA staff also presented at the American Association of School Libraries (AASL) board meeting and met with state chapters to provide updates on school library priorities. Members were updated on the Right to Read Act, the Museum and Library Services Act, and best practices when acting as advocates towards federal government officials. 

The PPA team had a great time connecting with members in Chicago last month. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage with our work here in Washington and the ways to support libraries at the national, state, and local level.  




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