Politics

Friends of The Library

State library agencies aren't known for having broad public support. At least not until the governor tries to eliminate them.
by | April 2003
 

When Florida Governor Jeb Bush proposed his budget for 2004, he knew there would be serious opposition to many of his massive spending cuts. What he didn't expect was a backlash against his decision to shut down one of the least publicized institutions in all of Florida government--the State Library in Tallahassee. But a backlash is exactly what he got.

Under Bush's plan to save about $5.4 million a year, nearly half of the library's employees would be laid off, reference services would be eliminated, and the 350,000-item circulating collection would be transferred to a private university.

Since relatively few Floridians have much of an idea what the state library even does, the governor may have felt that this was a move he could make at relatively little political cost. If so, he miscalculated. A cadre of librarians, genealogists, scholars and booklovers across Florida--indeed around the country--has mobilized in opposition to his plan to dismantle the 158-year-old institution. Protesters have rallied in front of the library building, dozens of Florida newspaper editorials have castigated Bush's "short-sighted" decision, and the state historical society has gathered more than 13,000 signatures on an Internet petition asking the legislature to refuse to implement this portion of the governor's proposed budget.

Washington State is caught up in a similar situation. Governor Gary Locke wanted to eliminate the state library in the current fiscal year but couldn't win legislative approval to do so. The agency took a cut, but it was only 13 percent. For the next biennium, however, Locke wants to reduce the library's appropriation by 69 percent. As in Florida, a coalition of supporters is trying to keep that from happening.

Librarians and budget writers have learned two important lessons during the current period of state fiscal austerity. One is that state library services are increasingly endangered. The other is that these low-profile public institutions have more passionate defenders than almost anyone realized.

Most state libraries trace their roots back to the time of statehood. Their original purpose was to provide information and research to government officials, and they still do that, serving as state-level equivalents of the Library of Congress. In addition to highly specialized book collections and electronic databases, the typical state library also houses manuscripts, maps, periodicals, photos and memorabilia pertaining to state history and serves as the comprehensive repository for all state and federal documents, some dating back to 1789.

Every so often, the most arcane-sounding material in state libraries turns out to have crucial implications for modern-day decision making. When Washington State was preparing its lawsuit challenging the tobacco industry, staff from the attorney general's office photocopied cigarette ads that ran in decades-old newspapers. And a few months ago, Department of Health employees used the state library databases to obtain information about the side-effects of the smallpox vaccine.

Over time, the mission of state libraries expanded to include the planning and development of library services on a statewide basis. They serve as the behind-the-scenes administrative hub for community, school and academic libraries in their respective states, and distribute both state aid and $150 million in federal grant money under the 1996 federal Library Services and Technology Act.

In addition, they broker cooperative purchasing agreements. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission, for example, purchases access to electronic databases for all academic, public and school libraries in the state to provide free to their users. The current cost of this program, known as TexShare Databases, is about $10.5 million per year. If each library in the state had to purchase these databases individually, the total cost would be about $140 million per year.

GROWING PRESSURE

Up until now, cuts to most state library budgets have averaged less than 10 percent, roughly comparable to those for other government agencies. But in some states--most notably California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts and Washington--they have been significantly higher.

After the Colorado Legislature adjourned last year, Governor Bill Owens used his line-item veto to cut 50 percent of the state library's budget, including all state funds for local libraries ($2 million) and the Colorado Resource Center at the Denver Public Library ($2.3 million), a free statewide reference service that had been handling 160,000 walk-in, phone, fax and e-mail questions a year.

Now Colorado's Joint Budget Committee has proposed another 10 percent reduction that targets technical assistance and staff development, materials for correctional facilities and mental hospitals, and maintenance funds for the Library for the Blind and Print Handicapped, "which means cutting services to this clientele in order to pay the electricity bill and fix the toilets," says State Librarian Nancy Bolt.

In California, Governor Gray Davis has proposed an overall decrease of 45 percent in funding for the state library between now and the end of 2004. The library agencies in Iowa and Massachusetts recently absorbed cutbacks in the 20 to 25 percent range. And under new Governor Mitt Romney's plan to consolidate state agencies, "we have zero funds designated for operations," says Robert Maier, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. "But we've been told we'll still be in operation."

Nowhere, however, is the budget ax poised to cut so deeply as in Washington State. Last year, the state library was one of 30 programs Governor Locke targeted for elimination to close a $1.6 billion budget hole. Instead, the legislature cut funding from $8.8 million to $7.6 million and approved putting $5.3 million of the library's appropriation into the Governor's Emergency Account. Locke later withheld nearly $1 million of this money, which forced the library to lay off 10 percent of its staff.

The legislature also ended the library's independent status by placing it under Secretary of State Sam Reed. He has prodded the library to slim down its general collection and work force--236,000 fewer books and 26 fewer positions--and refocus its mission on the desktop delivery of electronic information and collection of rare documents.

But if Locke's 69 percent cut goes through for FY 2003-05, the state library staff would be further reduced from 80 positions to 17, reference services would be eliminated, and although the collection would remain intact, the practical result, says State Librarian Jan Walsh, would be "denying access to information that isn't anywhere else and warehousing the culture of the state."

Among the most serious consequences--in Washington State and elsewhere--is the potential impact of budget cuts on the matching requirement for states to obtain federal funds under the 1996 law. States are subject to maintenance-of-effort rules to ensure that federal funding does not result in an offsetting decrease in state funding, and must provide money each year equal to the average of state support over the previous three years.

GOING PRIVATE

The fight that Washington State's library defenders have been mounting for the past year is similar to the one just getting underway in Florida--with one major difference: Both the state librarian and secretary of state in Florida support the governor's plan to transfer the circulating collection 500 miles south, to Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Bush originally wanted to keep the collection closer to the state capitol, moving it to Florida State University in Tallahassee, but FSU's president rejected the idea, citing lack of space and money to take care of the materials.

The administration also seems to be backpedaling on another controversial part of its original plan: transferring oversight for state documents and archives to the Department of Management Services. "We are cutting back some direct services to people who walk in this building," says State Librarian Judi Ring, acknowledging the demise of reference assistance for lawmakers and citizens alike, but she insists that library development activities, the State Archives, the Florida Collection and interlibrary loan networks will "remain just as they are now."

Yet with 55 of the state library's 120 staff members being laid off, many people are dubious about how it would be possible to fulfill those functions. "The budget was zeroed out with no plan as to where everyone will go and who will do what," says Pam Cooper, president of the Florida State Genealogical Society. "Moving the books is just the first wrecking ball." Her group is part of a coalition that may seek a restraining order challenging the governor's legal authority to give away taxpayer-owned property to a private institution.

Meanwhile, legislators on both sides of the aisle are responding to the hue and cry. Citing "huge support" for the library, Republican Speaker Johnnie Byrd recently expressed his view that "I don't think the Florida House of Representatives is going to abolish the State Library. Whether we have the same number of positions, how that is done, I can't answer that question,"

And in Washington State, while acknowledging that the state library is fighting for its life, Walsh is heartened by the fact that legislators are "asking really good questions about what would be the effect of this or that." GladysAnn Wells, director of the Arizona State Library and president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, is optimistic that the unexpected level of support nationwide will ultimately have a noticeable effect in saving these institutions. "I'm not going around saying, 'Woe, woe, woe,'" she declares. "We have to give the legislative process a chance to work."

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