Commentary: First, let’s put federal funding back into Delaware libraries


We love being first here in Delaware, that’s no secret. We were first in the nation to plan for outdoor library spaces amid COVID-19, and, if the bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act is supported by our congressional delegation, we could help ensure federal funding for library buildings in our state and across the country for the first time in 24 years.

With the passage of this bill, facilities like the Harrington Public Library, located in a former funeral home, could move to a state-of-the-art building with outdoor space to better serve its community and with solar panels to make it energy-efficient. A new library in Harrington was approved for construction funding from the state but had to be postponed due to a costly sewage problem and the insurmountable hurdle of securing matching funds. Funds available through this bill could enable the library to be designed and built, so Delawareans in that area could receive upgraded library services.

Thankfully, Delaware funds up to 50% of public library construction through the bond bill. The local community is required to match the funds, which has worked well in some instances. However, it has been difficult in lower-income communities, such as Harrington, resulting in disparities in library services. This federal bill could serve as a match for the state funds and bring greater equity of access and service to all our neighborhoods, not just those with the greatest fiscal resources.

Libraries are the foundations of their communities, offering access to academic advancement, economic opportunity and lifeline services. But these vital institutions eventually need to be renovated or replaced, and federal funding ended in 1996  

As Congress looks at an infrastructure package, now is the time to address this funding gap. The Build America’s Libraries Act would dedicate $5 billion to the construction and renovation of libraries nationwide. An estimated $22.2 million would be allocated for Delaware.

We have been investing in library buildings and technology infrastructure for over 20 years. Our master plan includes the goal of providing 1 square foot of library space per capita for Delawareans. In developing outdoor library spaces, we’re looking to expand learning environments for children, adults and families. The Council on Libraries and the Delaware Library Association will request funding for libraries that want to move forward, and federal funding could provide the match where needed.

Currently, a proposal is emerging to establish a new library for north Wilmington, as an anchor for revitalization and economic development. Federal matching funding could also help fuel this project. Other communities needing updated libraries include Newark, Selbyville, Rehoboth Beach and Smyrna.

The Route 9 Library & Innovation Center in New Castle, a National Library Medal of Honor finalist, is an example of what libraries can do when they have the resources. This library provides extensive maker labs, to support innovative experiences and entrepreneurship for Delawareans of all ages. New and modernized buildings like this will enable libraries to better meet the lifelong learning needs of our neighbors and help bridge the digital divide.

Over the past year, libraries have offered virtual programming that replicates the indoor experience, such as curbside pickups, virtual storytimes, parking lot Wi-Fi, expanded e-book options, loanable Chromebooks and MiFi, and printing to go. Parking lots were also used for food distribution and COVID-19 testing.

Libraries will play a vital role in rebuilding community life, continuing to work as second responders that aid social services and employment partners to support Delawareans in recovery efforts.

With the 120th anniversary of the Delaware State Library Commission and our public libraries this year, please urge our congressional delegation to support the Build America’s Libraries Act.

Let’s reenact federal investment in our library facilities, for the first time in almost a quarter-century. Investing in our libraries is investing in all our state’s youngest residents and giving them an equal chance to be successful. We can take this opportunity to do some real impact by funding libraries’ infrastructure, for our academic, social and environmental best future.


Dr. Annie Norman is state librarian of Delaware. Catherine Wimberley is president of the Delaware Library Association.

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