Better Libraries, Better Communities: IWBI's Jason Hartke Sits Down With U.S. Sen. Jack Reed

Sep 24, 2021 11:05 AM ET
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Through policy and partnership, IWBI has supported priority sectors, such as schools, senior and assisted living facilities, public sector buildings and affordable housing, where health and well-being strategies and features found in the WELL Building Standard (WELL) can reach and benefit those most in need. Libraries are one of those priority sectors. An investment in libraries is an investment in all Americans, helping strengthen our communities and advancing our shared health, sustainability and resilience goals.

The Build America’s Libraries Act (BALA) would allocate $5 billion to public library infrastructure updates, including addressing climate change disasters, COVID-19 recovery, as well as broadband access and accessibility. Introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), BALA would support the creation of new and improved libraries in high-need communities.

IWBI’s Jason Hartke had the chance to sit down with Sen. Reed recently to talk more about his commitment to libraries and his leading work to advance the Build America’s Libraries Act.

Q: Senator, you’ve been a beacon of leadership when it comes to championing the nation’s libraries, which play such a critical role in all of our hometowns all across the country. Could you tell us a little more about how the bill came about and its long-term goals?

Libraries uplift our communities in so many ways. Whether it is accessing technology, books, or free community classes, libraries are for everyone. I’ve met folks from all walks of life who say they learned English at the library, found their job through library resources, or even sheltered at their local library during an emergency. So the goal has always been to help public libraries fulfill their vital mission and expand their reach.

Public libraries are constantly and continuously innovating to meet specific community needs. And during the pandemic, libraries have stepped up in new ways, whether by providing online tools or distributing free COVID-19 testing. Libraries are that trusted community resource.

At the same time, we know some communities, particularly those in distressed neighborhoods, whether in rural areas or in our urban cores, lack a library with the facilities, resources, and programming they need. And it is vital that underserved communities be able to access technology and other vital library services. When I was working with Sen. Schumer on the Economic Justice Act in 2020, I sought to ensure this legislation addressed the urgent need to modernize the facilities that are essential to any community – schools and libraries. In the intervening months, as the pandemic has continued, these needs have only grown, especially for libraries that require HVAC improvements or even the addition of electrical outlets in outdoor spaces to better ensure the safety of patrons and librarians alike. So I introduced these provisions as a standalone bill, the Build America’s Libraries Act, and have been pushing for its inclusion in the once-in-a-generation investment we are looking to make in infrastructure. Libraries, like our schools, are essential community assets, and they need our investment to help people young and old alike thrive.

Q: September is a critical month for this legislation. Where does the legislation stand at this point? And how have you seen the urgency for investing in library infrastructure change over the past few months?

We are pushing hard, along with Rep. Andy Levin who leads the bill in the House. And other advocates, like IWBI, have been active in trying to find a way to ensure this funding is included in the reconciliation bill that is moving through Congress. There is a real sense of urgency that I think is felt in communities. But it is not an issue the mainstream media always covers. So the more attention we can bring to this cause and the stronger the advocacy with my colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives, the better. I am hopeful we will succeed because this is a wise investment that would help all fifty states and frankly, it is something that deserves unanimous support.

Q: COVID-19 laid bare so many societal inequities. What does this legislation do to better support communities in need?

By ensuring modern and accessible libraries, we are providing a lifeline to communities in need… keeping people connected, engaged, and accessing the knowledge and skills that can ultimately lead to jobs that can feed and support families. Now is the time to look to our post-pandemic future with an eye toward building more inclusive, connected communities, and public libraries are essential to that effort… a vital component of America’s education network, connecting people to information… technology… and ladders of opportunities for advancement.

Q: We know that our public library buildings are outdated and for decades have been underinvested. What are you most looking forward to improving with this legislation?

In working to secure $200 million in the American Rescue Plan to help libraries recover from COVID-19, I knew this funding – the largest single-year increase in library funding – would be a game changer for libraries across the country. It would enable libraries to respond to needs exposed by the pandemic as well as make forward-thinking investments in programming and services to support their community members.

In much the same way, with the average library building now more than 40 years old and many requiring large-scale improvements and modernization, it is my hope that passing the Build America’s Libraries Act would allow communities to transform library facilities… to be state-of-the-art learning and community spaces that are healthier, safer, more accessible, have less environmental impact, and able to withstand natural disasters. This is what President Johnson envisioned when he signed into law the first library construction program in 1964 (now defunct), saying “Anything that we can do to enlarge the number and the quality of libraries is, I think, an act of national achievement.”

Q: Anything else you would like to share?

I want to express my deep appreciation and thanks to IWBI for supporting both my library construction legislation, the Build America’s School Libraries Act, and my school construction bill, the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act. It will take our collective advocacy efforts to ensure libraries and schools are part of this historic investment in our communities. Only by working together can we get this important job done.

Senator, I think you may remember my grandfather, Sen. Vance Hartke of Indiana, who helped lead on legislation the last time Congress made a similar significant investment in our libraries. I don’t know if you had a chance to know him - he passed in 2003 - but you both would have been darn good friends. I want to thank you again for your tireless work and leadership on this important legislation. And I want to thank you for the work you do every day to lift this country and help all families build better lives. We greatly appreciate your time.