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Public Libraries Can Tap into Eligible Funds Worth Billions

The American Rescue Plan includes significant federal dollars that can support library programs and services that play a larger role in recovery than is generally understood.

Denver's modern main branch library in the city's downtown.
Denver's modern main branch library in the city's downtown. (Jim Lambert/Shutterstock)
A Gallup poll published in January 2020 found that the cultural activity that Americans engaged in most often wasn’t going to a movie theatre, concert or sporting event, but visiting a library. The most frequent users of library services were young people aged 18-29, residents of low-income households and women.

By March 2020, 98 percent of libraries had closed their buildings to some extent, a survey by the American Library Association (ALA) found. They had pivoted, and were working to augment online services and develop new ways to serve their communities during the pandemic. Some jurisdictions reassigned library staff to assist with the COVID-19 response.
Looking back on 2020, ALA President Julius C. Jefferson, Jr. described it as “a year when library professionals answered the call to serve amid multiple emergencies and a year when library workers again proved to be essential ‘first restorers’ or ‘second responders.’” 

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) includes billions of dollars in library-eligible funds. Libraries bring unique resources to the ARP’s recovery mission and its aim to lift up citizens disproportionally affected by the pandemic. As an added asset, at a time when clashes between facts and “alternative facts” are intensifying public health and social emergencies, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe libraries can help them decide which information to trust.

Available Funding

Funding for libraries is available from a number of programs, from sums allocated specifically and only to them to hundreds of billions which schools and local governments have freedom to spend to address their specific needs. Libraries and their advocates will compete with others for a share of these.

The ARP allocates $200 million for libraries through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), an independent federal agency that provides grants to libraries and museums. Some IMLS grants require matches, but this will not be required for grants from stimulus funds. IMLS allotments will be determined according to a population-based formula (see map for amounts). 

Money will be sent to state library administrative agencies, who will get it to local libraries.

The funding recognizes how much libraries mean to communities, says Cynthia Landrum, deputy director for the Office of Library Services at IMLS. “This additional infusion of funds will allow them to continue to support those that are most in need, especially around things like digital inclusion and bridging the digital divide.”

State library administrative agencies will oversee the transfer of funds to local libraries. Unlike some IMLS funding, grants from the ARP will not require matches.

Libraries can apply to the $7.172 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to receive 100 percent reimbursement for purchases of equipment to provide Internet connectivity and devices to the public. The FCC is currently seeking input on rules for distribution of these funds, with attention to the needs of those with disabilities. 

State, local and tribal governments are receiving $360 billion in emergency aid, intended to offset cuts to public services. More than $170 billion is appropriated for K-12 schools, and $40 billion to higher education. Library services and programs can contribute to economic, academic and emotional recovery efforts in both of these sectors, though it may fall to libraries to make the case for funding.

The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities will each receive $135 million, and 60 percent is to be used for direct grants for which libraries are eligible. Libraries can be partners for child-care and early learning programs, for which ARP designates a total of $40 billion, and for state and local-level after-school and summer programs, funded by more than $30 billion.

Libraries are eligible to receive funds from multiple portions of the emergency recovery funds in the American Rescue Plan.

“There's tons of funding available in the pots that are out there, but much of it will be going to states and cities as block grants,” says Paul Negron, senior communications manager at the Urban Libraries Council. “Public libraries have to dedicate team members to liaise with their state and local and government agencies to understand what that funding is, how they can apply for it and what kind of partnerships are available.”

Internet Didn't Kill Libraries

Services provided by modern libraries go far beyond free access to printed books. Their guiding principle is the organization and curation of knowledge in all its forms. “Contrary to what some folks think, the Internet has not killed libraries,” says Michelle Jeske, city librarian for the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association (PLA). “It's made them even more necessary than ever.” 

Libraries are unequaled resources for job seekers, small businesses, struggling students, early readers and isolated seniors. It’s hard to overstate the value of guidance from a trained librarian who has sorted through and organized available resources on your search topic. Libraries offer everything from preschool story time to code training and exercise classes, and have found ways to provide them online when needed.  

During the pandemic, librarians have enabled citizens to access stimulus checks and apply for unemployment benefits. Dedicated business and workforce librarians have helped local business owners research opportunities to rebuild or start over, and workers prepare resumes. Libraries have opened their parking lots to provide drive-in Internet access to those who need it and used their bookmobiles to bring it to neighborhoods. They have served as vaccination sites and helped patrons sort through “fake news” about public health guidelines and elections.

“We serve the most vulnerable among us, who’ve been hit hardest by this pandemic,” says Jeske. “Older adults, people experiencing homelessness, people have lost their jobs, people who can no longer afford high-speed Internet, children and their parents who have had to engage in remote learning.”

In addition to providing web access in their facilities, many libraries provide devices and hot spots that can be checked out, and assistance to those who don’t know how to get online or create an email account. Millions of Americans depend upon public libraries as their sole source of access to the Internet, says Negron, and depend on it to conduct personal affairs, access government benefits or do schoolwork.

Digital Resources

Expanding library programs, including their online catalogs, is integral to overcoming the economic, educational and emotional damage from the pandemic and ensuring equal access to digital resources, says Alan Inouye, senior director, public policy and government relations for the American Library Association. Libraries embody the American ideal of opportunity, dedicated to helping everyone have a chance, no matter their circumstances.

“Libraries have a really important role of helping to create hope for the future,” says Inouye. “I urge governors and mayors to think about how libraries can move the community forward in both a pragmatic and a symbolic sense.” 

Inouye would like to see the economic stimulus and vaccination efforts result in a “learning moment” about government. It’s possible that Americans could realize that a very bad situation had improved fairly quickly, and that government played a positive role.

“I’m hopeful that will be the conclusion,” he says.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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