September 20, 2014

IMLS, NARA, and Library Of Congress Closed During Government Shutdown

After late night wrangling failed to produce a short term spending bill that could pass both the Senate and House of Representatives, the U.S. federal government has shut down for the first time in nearly two decades. As of this morning, federal agencies that support the mission of libraries around the country — from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences to the Library of Congress have found themselves forced to close their doors and furlough the majority of their staffers.

Today, the Library of Congress and and all of its online resources are unavailable, including the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which provides reading assistance for library patrons across the country who can’t read or otherwise access traditional printed material. The homepage reads:

Due to the temporary shutdown of the federal government, the Library of Congress is closed to the public and researchers beginning October 1, 2013 until further notice.All public events are cancelled and web sites are inaccessible except the legislative information sites THOMAS.gov and beta.congress.gov.

The IMLS, meanwhile, is limping along with four employees deemed exempt from the shutdown—the general counsel, chief information officer, chief operating officer, and director. The IMLS’s grant-making ability could be impacted, too, at least in the near term. While grants that have been awarded already will still be honored, processing of applications will be idled during the shutdown, with no employees on hand to review them or disburse awards. Requests for grant payments from state libraries may be delayed as well, with a funding hiatus putting a stop to processing, with an excepted employee being able to process grants only after the first week of a shutdown.

For more on the causes of the shutdown, see infoDOCKET.com

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), meanwhile, has detailed its shutdown plan on its website. Today, the agency put 1,932 of its 3,184 employees on unpaid furloughs for the duration of the government shutdown. That means at least partial closures of the 13 NARA-administered Presidential libraries across the country, though sections of those institutions operated by private foundations may remain open.

As late as last Friday, federal employees remained sanguine that a shutdown—and the cuts to services and employee furloughs that would ensue—could be avoided at the eleventh hour. “We continue to work and plan for the continued operations for the agency,” said IMLS spokesperson Mamie Bittner.

While there’s no telling how long the government shutdown that began this morning will last, it implications could be felt far longer that employee furloughs last. The uncertainty that accompanies a shutdown can cause institutional disruptions that affect the services libraries offer their patrons beyond the scope of a shutdown.Last year’s “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations brought about uncertainty in the IRS, preventing agency employees from getting tax forms finalized and printed on time and delaying their distribution to libraries across the nation, pointed out Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office.

Of course, making backup plans for a shutdown takes employee time as well. Every hour spent planning for how to deal with a pause in normal operations is an hour that can’t be spent dealing with an agency’s day-to-day business. “Disruptions like these are an issue for any responsible administrator,” Sheketoff said. “If you go into a year going not knowing how much money you have, you don’t know how to allocate it.”

D.C. Libraries Declared “Essential”

In the nation’s capitol, the shutdown that would normally see non-essential local government services like libraries and parks closed in the nation’s capitol. But D.C. mayor Vincent Gray is defying the federal government and refusing to entertain that possibility. Today, D.C.’s public libraries remain open despite the federal shutdown.

Municipal services in D.C., from libraries to garbage collection, are funded by local taxes, and D.C.’s budget is in reasonably good shape. But due to the District’s special status, that budget has to be approved by Congress, and if Congress refuses to approve a budget, D.C.’s spending goes into a freeze, preventing the city from providing government services that are not considered essential. By law, that means shuttering services like recreation centers, DMV offices, and libraries and furloughing employees without pay.

But the idea of closing services and idling public employees that D.C. taxpayers have already funded doesn’t sit right with mayor Vincent Gray, or members of the D.C. city council. A press release issued by Gray’s office last week reads in part:

“It is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people—a city where we have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have a rainy-day fund of well over a billion dollars—cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval.”

Keeping libraries and other services open, though, could put Gray on the wrong side of the law. The Washington City Paper reports that spending city money to pay non-essential employees during a government shutdown could be a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act resulting in Gray being fined, jailed for up to two years, and potentially removed from office. Now, it seems that Gray and his colleagues are may have found an end run around those dire consequences.

On Wednesday, Gray sent a terse letter to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that deemed all local government employees—including librarians—“essential” personnel, putting them in the same category as police officers, firefighters, and teachers. That means they are exempted from a government shutdown, and allowed to report to work and serve their patrons as usual.

In fact, D.C. librarians may be helping even more patrons than usual as the federal government shuts down around them. “Today, we opened with expanded hours, and because of that we’re able to host a disability expo,” said DCPL spokesperson George Williams. “Our computers at the MLK lib were full this morning, and our libraries across the city are as full as they’ve ever been.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

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