Is It Time to Rethink Federal Library Legislation?

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After 25 years of the Library Services and Construction Act, the profession should at least consider a new approach to funding

IS IT TIME TO RETHINK FEDeral library legislation for the 1990s? My answer to that question is an unqualified "yes."

For almost four decades the American Library Association has enjoyed strong support in Congress for basic library operations in public libraries. That support includes funding for state library administration, inter-institutional cooperation, library buildings, and services to the disadvantaged. That last category, the disadvantaged, first concentrated on service to rural areas (those with a population under 10,000); in recent years, the emphasis moved to minorities and the underserved in our decaying cities. The growing fist of priorities now includes a national concern for adult literacy, certainly a major consideration in any democracy where citizens, for good or ill, choose their own political leaders.

A strong case can be made for such support. Like other educational agencies, libraries are fundamental to our democratic principles. As Jefferson said, no republic can be ignorant and fret I have often argued that libraries of all types implement that Jeffersonian principle admirably.

But the problem is not whether libraries should serve the function of making information available to citizens. The question involving federal legislation is how this is to be accomplished. During those heady days of President Johnson's Great Society prograrns, the federal government made a commitment to strengthening educational institutions, including libraries, through a massive infusion of federal funds. Most of those funds were spent wisely, certainly more wisely than those appropriated in many other areas. The original aims of the 1956 Library Services Act have long since been met except in very specific areas. Yet librarians still argue forcefully that continuation of basic categorical support is essential.

Whether we recognize the new political reality or not, the federal commitment to support of educational and social programs has been shifting to the states, beginning under President Carter and continuing through his two successors.

That is a problem, of course. Most state legislatures this year face increasing pressures on funding. Many will either cut programs or increase taxes; most will probably do both. Taking their example from the federal government, these legislatures will impose new taxes bearing the euphemism "revenue enhancements."

One can argue that this wealthy country would not have revenue problems if we had not essentially abandoned the progressive income tax. My personal view is that the Congress made a colossal mistake in going thatroute, but that should not obscure the rearity: Congress did, and reversing that course of action seems unlikely in the near future. The net result will be less money for all programs at the national level. Rethinking our priorities

So what do we do about federal library legislation? In my opinion, we need to rethink our priorities for federal library funding. Over a decade ago, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science argued that the federal government should provide a larger percentage of revenue for public libraries. That idea never had very much appeal. At this point it is clear that funding levels in th "general" category have not increased significantly, except in those areas where a specific national need has been addressed, eg., mi norities, the disadvantaged, literacy, technology. The same has been true of support for elementary and secondary schools and for higher education. In the case of academic libraries, the old Higher Education Act now emphasizes support for collections that serve a national purpose, such as Title 11-C, the Strengthening Research Library Resources Prograrn. The National Endowment for the Humanities has also received additional support for another national thrust, conservation and preservation. …