Comment: Local libraries key infrastructure for communities

The federal Build America’s Libraries Act would help fund needed improvements at Sno-Isle Libraries.

By Lois Langer Thompson / For The Herald

Libraries are a cornerstone institution in our communities; sometimes even the cornerstone tenant on Main Street.

This past year, when we could not physically welcome you through our doors, our libraries adapted their service models, offering online story times, laptop and hotspot check-outs, virtual pub trivia, curbside pickup, parking lot Wi-Fi, face mask distributions, and covid-19 vaccination clinics.

Whether in-person or online, libraries connect us. From supporting economic, educational, and social recovery during a global pandemic to nurturing the youngest of readers, our resiliency and dedicated attention to community needs are the foundation of our service model. Libraries connect us in ways that other local infrastructure cannot.

Unfortunately, despite significant growth in our region and increasing demand for library services, our ability to update and modernize our 23 Sno-Isle Libraries buildings has been limited.

In the coming weeks, we have an opportunity to strengthen our libraries by ensuring more universally equitable access to them. The Build America’s Libraries Act would allocate $5 billion for the construction and renovation of libraries in underserved communities nationwide, with an estimated $105.7 million for Washington state. This legislation, the first of its kind since 1997, would address accessibility barriers, broadband capacity, natural disasters, pandemics, and environmental hazards. We are working with our congressional delegation to include libraries in the infrastructure package by supporting this bill.

We are grateful that Washington state, led by state Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend, provides aid for library renovation and construction, and that state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, and state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, have helped secure initial funds for new library facilities at Mariner in Everett and Lake Stevens, respectively. But these state grants require matching funds that are difficult to obtain in small and lower income communities. We are hopeful that the Build America’s Libraries Act would assist and bring greater equity of access to library services across all our neighborhoods.

For example, these funds would be transformative for the Mariner Library, located in a strip mall, and serving 25,000 people in a neighborhood without a community center or other public services. This former yoga-studio-turned-library is packed from the moment the doors open; our current facility footprint simply cannot meet the community’s needs. A permanent, suitable location would allow us to offer more programs for students, families, job seekers, entrepreneurs, and immigrants.

The Lake Stevens Library has relocated from its former location on Main Street and is in a pop-up space at Lundeen Park for the summer, limited to processing library cards, distributing hold materials, and checking out laptops. Matching funds through this federal legislation could accelerate a new building that we are exploring with the city.

Accessibility is a priority for our Board of Trustees and staff. Yet, many library restrooms and entrances fall short of today’s standards. Arlington Library’s antiquated HVAC system forces the facility to close on hot days and when wildfire smoke lingers. This legislation could fund updates to make our buildings easier to enter and navigate, for all library customers.

The covid-19 pandemic stripped us of our ability to safely gather with friends and neighbors. As we return to public life, we are remembering the importance and value of having a civic gathering space.

Much like we have found creative ways to maintain and nurture relationships over the past year, we need to find ways to strengthen physical spaces in our communities. We need to reconnect with each other and our common community spaces.

The Build America’s Libraries Act would invite us to do that, with greater ease of access and improved spaces and services. As we reopen our physical doors, reconnect with your library, and join us in supporting this effort so we can build the future of libraries together.

Lois Langer Thompson is the executive director for Sno-Isle Libraries.

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