March 16, 2018

Politician of the Year: Jack Reed

The Senator from Rhode Island takes his place as the leading advocate in Congress for library funding

By Norman Oder — Library Journal, 09/15/2002


It takes consistency and tenacity to support library funding in Congress. When the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA)—a major revision of the expiring Library Services and Construction Act—was passed in 1996, a crucial supporter was Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI), a longtime library champion. It seems fitting that Pell’s successor, elected later that year, is Sen. Jack Reed, a fellow Democrat who is now leading the charge to reauthorize LSTA with more than double the original amount of funding. Negotiations in this and the next few months will be crucial.

This is hardly Reed’s first effort to boost libraries. He is probably best known in the library community for the Reed Amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which in 2001 authorized $250 million to schools nationwide to buy books and advanced technology, provide training for librarians, and keep their libraries open longer.

“I’ve always thought that libraries played a central role,” says Reed in a phone interview from Washington, “not just in education but also as a place where the community can come together, a source of common ground.” While many elected officials might voice similar sentiments, few put themselves—and their staff—front and center the way Reed does.

“Libraries always seem to be the first casualty in every budget process,” he says. “So, unless we set down the marker for library funding on a federal level, it’ll get lost in the shuffle.” For his steadfast commitment to this goal, Reed has been named Library Journal‘s Politician of the Year 2002.

Says Joan Ress Reeves, a longtime lay advocate for libraries in Rhode Island, of Reed, “He has a really keen mind, he’s totally honest, he has a great sense of humor, he really cares about libraries, and he gets things done.”

It starts at home

People back home call Reed “Jack”—it’s that kind of small state—and praise him for his accessibility. “He’s very much involved in his state,” notes David Macksam, director of the Cranston Public Library and president of the Rhode Island Library Association. Indeed, Reed’s local office is nearly across the street from the main library, which he uses for public forums and discussions.

Reed has the kind of résumé that other liberal Democrats can only covet. He grew up in blue-collar Cranston, developing a capacity for hard work and, as the Providence Journal-Bulletin once wrote, his “streak of ambition—audacity mixed with cautious calculation.”

Sidestepping the 1960s counterculture, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1971 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and gained a master’s in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A commissioned officer as well, he served in the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry platoon leader, a company commander, and a battalion staff officer.

He returned to West Point in 1978 to teach, then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1982. As a working lawyer in Providence, he quickly grasped political opportunity. In 1984, he was elected to the State Senate. After serving three two-year terms, in 1990 he began a three-term stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, focusing on education and healthcare, not to mention steady attention to his home constituency.

Reed joins a bipartisan Ocean State tradition of support for libraries. It includes not only Pell but also the late Sen. John Chafee and his son and successor, Lincoln Chafee, both Republicans. Besides that, notes Reed, “We’re the beneficiaries of a good community library system in Rhode Island, with wonderful advocates. Libraries function as integral parts of the community.”

Indeed, he adds that such advocates “are my neighbors as well as library representatives. They don’t have to do a lot of convincing, because I benefited from all these libraries as a child.”

School libraries get a boost

On December 11, 2001, congressional negotiators concluded their work on the complex reauthorization of ESEA. While the school libraries amendment was named for Reed, he was not alone, of course. ALA and associated groups lobbied hard for the provision, and the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science held a hearing. But Reed had been working on the issue since he was in the House. In the previous reauthorization, he inserted language in the final bill for school libraries, but funding was never achieved for the line item, and it was removed in 1996.

Reed recalls that, in 1991, as a member of the House Education Committee, he learned that “most school libraries were in deplorable condition.” He also had some personal exposure: he was dating a school principal at the time, and the library in her school was relegated to a hallway. Beyond that, “if you took the books off the shelf, they were downright embarrassing.” So Reed set up a web site ( ) that detailed how school libraries were “stocked with inaccurate information and harmful stereotypes” and invited contributions.

In the ESEA negotiations last year, Reed legislative aide Elyse Wasch was the sole staff person to attend every meeting and advocate for a bill, recalls Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington Office. “[Wasch] could be that tenacious because she knew the Senator completely supported that position.”

Can LSTA reach $350 million?

Authorization is not appropriation, however, and the first-year appropriation for school libraries under ESEA was only $12.5 million—a sum that should be doubled this year. The Museum and Library Services Act of 2002 in the Senate—introduced by Reed—includes an LSTA reauthorization of $350 million, while the House version is only $300 million. For the first five years since 1996, the figure was $150 million. The Senate bill includes a larger base for smaller states, doubling the minimum state allotment, which has remained flat at $340,000 since 1971. “There has to be at least a threshold of federal resources to have an impact,” says Reed.

“He was very creative in reaching out to colleagues from smaller states and explaining why it would be important for them to support his version,” adds Sheketoff. “There was a lot of pressure to keep the number down.”

Given that this year’s proposed appropriation is $158 million and that the country is facing both deficits and new expenditures on security, Reed recognizes that it’s not the easiest time to ask for more money. “I think we’ve got a good chance to get the bill through with an authorization that at least will raise the target,” he says—and such a target serves as a beacon for future appropriations.

Reed adds that, while libraries may be less of a priority than they were 18 months ago, literacy and education remain government goals: “We keep appealing to the administration to match their rhetoric with dollars.” Has Laura Bush, a former school librarian herself, made a difference? Reed praises her concern and her tone: “I’d be more comfortable if she were director of [the Office of Management and Budget].”

Library advocates say Reed could not do his job without Wasch, who works on library and education issues. “When we visited on Legislative Day,” recalls state Chief of Library Services Anne Parent, “we said, ‘[Wasch knows] more about LSTA than we do.'” Reed praises Wasch as others praise him: “a very smart person who works very hard.”

Getting the word across

LJ spoke to Reed just before he left Washington for the August recess, a chance to reconnect with constituents and—for those, like Reed, up for reelection—pursue their campaigns. Reed shouldn’t be worried; he’s facing a perennial also-ran Republican candidate, former casino pit manager Bob Tingle.

But such trips home are a good opportunity for library advocates to connect with Reed. In fact, he advises that lobbying is best from the grass roots: “It’s nice when people visit you in Washington, but most political officials are more impressed when you’re [advocating] back in the hometown.”

“I think, frankly, the library community is taken for granted,” he says. “Libraries always seem to be there, they’re open. It’s incumbent on the library community to initiate these contacts.” Invite your elected official, he says, to visit a library or make sure students or patrons send letters.

With perhaps an unspoken reference to his own path from modest circumstances, Reed says his main goal is to “broaden opportunities for Americans. And I think the fundamental source of opportunity is education, which is having schools and libraries that are excellent.”

Author Information
Norman Oder is Senior News Editor, LJ


Politicians Making a Difference

Patrick Harris, City Council Member, St. Paul |
Successor to his brother Mike Harris, a fellow independent and library advocate, Patrick Harris since 2000 has found the money to boost the city library’s materials budget by 30 percent and helped get the state to let St. Paul create a new library levy.

Deirdre “Dede” Alpert, State Senator, San Diego
During her 12 years in the state legislature, Alpert has authored the 1998 bill to establish the “Library of California” and cosponsored the measure that led to the 2000 California Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act. She plans to support a new library construction bond measure next year.