With Alan Inouye, Senior Director for Public Policy and Government Relations of the American Library Association
Could you tell us about your role and some of the major projects that fall under your responsibility within ALA?
I am the Senior Director for Public Policy and Government Relations at the American Library Association. I have general responsibility for our policy, legislative, regulatory work that we undertake. Our current priorities include COVID-19 relief for libraries, because many libraries are experiencing financial difficulty. Most libraries are funded by local or state governments, K-12 schools, or colleges & universities—all of which are under budgetary pressure that is expected to intensify in 2021.
Providing internet access for those without is also a COVID-19 priority for ALA. Libraries are doing what they can, but we could do much more with additional funding (such as from federal COVID-19 relief) and waiver of some regulations. So advocating for this funding is a key priority for ALA.
What does your organization and libraries overall feel that they need to see when it comes to E-Rate reform?
In the COVID-19 pandemic, we seek a waiver to the E-rate rules that restrict internet access to library premises only. With such great need and some library buildings closed, libraries would like to be able to divert some broadband capacity to benefit community members beyond the library’s premises. Related to this, we’d like to see E-rate discounts available to support the acquisition of hotspots that libraries can then lend to community members in need.
Cybersecurity is an essential part of providing internet access, but most such expenses are not eligible for E-rate discounts. ALA seeks to have necessary cybersecurity expenses in libraries eligible in the E-rate program.
Could you clarify what ALA means by encouraging the FCC’s preemption of state laws?
We encourage all entities to be legally able to provide internet service, and that should be allowable for municipal governments, too.
If you had the opportunity to talk directly to FCC or Congressional leadership, how could they best support libraries?
One area is to bolster the capacity for digital literacy education and learning. For example, Senator Patty Murray has a bill, “The Digital Equity Act.” It would provide increased support for digital inclusion training, workshops, and staff capacity to libraries and other community organizations. People need access to devices and internet access, but after that they need the ability to use this technology to useful ends.
We are also advocating for the establishment of technology innovation centers in libraries. Some libraries have maker spaces. Many libraries have computer labs. Some libraries have audiovisual recording studios. Libraries have information resources, expert librarians, and relationships and good reputations with the local community. Technology innovation centers would combine these assets, and would help with training youth to get them acclimated and knowledgeable about technology, especially those that do not have access to that technology at home. The centers would also support entrepreneurs and small businesses, and community members looking to learn about new technologies for career advancement. These centers would be especially important in rural areas or lower income communities to provide access to new economic and learning opportunities that technology can enable.
What are some of ALA’s policy priorities for 2021?
Some other priorities include building construction. While there are some new or recently-improved buildings, many others are in need of renovation . The average public library is around 40 years old—constructed prior to the rise of the internet. These older buildings weren’t designed for widespread internet or electrical access now needed. Also, they don’t have the small group rooms or coworking spaces that students or entrepreneurs demand. These buildings should also be upgraded to be greener and more resource sustainable.
There were several bills introduced in the 116th Congress on school and municipal building construction and renovation that ALA supported. We expect to support similar bills in the new Congress and advocate for the explicit inclusion of school, public, and academic libraries.
Finally, we are advocating for explicit inclusion of libraries and library staff in federal COVID-19 relief bills. Just as with police, fire, and K-12 schools, the community’s libraries are also subject to budget cuts. Libraries help community members with broadband access, but also with digital literacy—all in service to educating, informal learning, job searching, job upskilling, credentialing, obtaining health information, and in many other ways. To continue serving communities, libraries also need to be protected from budget cuts as much as possible.