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Federal money provides lifeline to libraries

Sanders touts $2 million in federal aid, but library directors in Vermont say even more aid is needed to meet new demands

—Infrastructure in the 21st century is more than roads, bridges, and water and sewer lines. It’s also about making investments in human capital — and no institution in the United States is better positioned than libraries to deliver services, from providing high-speed internet access to lending gardening tools.A group of Vermont’s library directors made that case to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during an online roundtable discussion on April 8.Sanders said the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden provides $2.1 million to Vermont’s 181 public libraries to help them meet the myriad of new needs that have been thrust upon them due to the COVID-19 pandemic.It is money that the library directors say will be put to good use — but they say more help is needed.“A lot of our libraries survived very, very well,” said State Librarian Jason Broughton, “but it has definitely been hard.”

Aid for libraries

—Sanders is one of the Senate sponsors of the Build America’s Libraries Act, a bill that is before Congress.According to the American Library Association, the legislation would provide $5 billion for upgrades to the nation’s library infrastructure “to address challenges such as natural disasters, COVID-19, broadband capacity, environmental hazards, and accessibility barriers” and “pave the way for new and improved library facilities in underserved communities across the country.”That bill had unanimous support among the Vermont library directors attending Sanders’ teleconference.Kevin Unrath, president of the Vermont Library Association and director of the Pierson Library in Shelburne, said his town just completed a $6.5 million expansion of its library, mostly through private donations and municipal bonding “because we’re a relatively wealthy community.”However, Unrath said that many more towns, not as well off as Shelburne, “desperately need” upgrades to their libraries.“Libraries are the invisible infrastructure of our communities,” said Amy Olsen, director of Lanpher Memorial Library in Hyde Park. “In general, people love libraries. They value having a library in their community, even if they don’t use the library.”Unfortunately, she said, when it comes time for libraries to ask their communities to help pay the increasing cost of running the facility, let alone for paying to upgrade infrastructure and services, “we’re suddenly seen as a ‘nicety’ instead of a necessity.”Consequently, Olsen said, libraries “are conditioned to have bake sales and book sales and raffles and you-name-it fundraisers. And we do this for years until we have just enough money for the basics.”She said that the Build America’s Libraries Act is more than providing fundraising for needed upgrades to make libraries “safe and accessible” for patrons — if the legislation passes, it will offer a chance for people to see that libraries are “places that are important, vital and worthy of national attention.”

More than books

—Starr LaTronica, director of Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, has long been a proponent of libraries being more than just repositories of printed material. To her, libraries are “institutions dedicated to the sharing of common resources — not just books and information, but also experiences in a space that is open to all.”However, the pandemic has disrupted that vision and forced the library to close its doors to the public, she said.“We have spent generations telling people, ‘Come to the library,’ and then all of a sudden, we couldn’t do that and we had to relearn everything,” LaTronica said.That meant moving more of the library’s materials to the online realm, as well as instituting curbside pickup for books and making deliveries of books to people who are unable to come pick them up.LaTronica said 50 percent of the library’s book circulation is now curbside only and that online downloads of books “have skyrocketed.” That huge growth in online circulation has meant that Brooks has had to devote more of its resources to digital books, which are more expensive for libraries than printed copies.Beyond the intellectual development of its patrons, LaTronica said, libraries support social and emotional development, especially for the youngest users. With schools closed for much of last year, she said libraries had to step up and, in effect, do their summer enrichment programs year round.At the same time, she said, the more services her library offers, the greater the demand there is for those services.“Our success has caused us to outgrow our capacity, and we find ourselves in need of space and staff,” she said.

More broadband needed

—Unrath said that libraries filled the gap during the pandemic for Vermonters who had no access to high-speed internet. Many of the library directors concurred, telling Sanders that during the pandemic, they would routinely see cars parked outside their buildings to access Wi-Fi.The Fletcher Free Library in Montpelier boosted its wireless internet capacity, “but it’s an old building and putting wiring in is a challenge,” said Library Director Mary Danko. “We’ve got wires crossing all over the place.”Before the pandemic, the Fletcher Free Library offered stations for wireless users to charge their phones and tablets. With the library closed to the public, Danko said only one outside outlet is available for patrons.“We started handing extension cords out the window in good weather,” she said. “That’s the kind of scrappiness you see from us.”Libraries have been continuing services the best that they can, said Unrath.With the pandemic easing and recovery in sight, he said the additional federal aid will make a big difference in helping libraries meet the increasing demands for their services.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #608 (Wednesday, April 14, 2021). This story appeared on page A3.

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