New York’s libraries left behind

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Eye from Albany
March 2003

New York’s libraries left behind
by Paul M. Bray

If you are looking for an indicator of how well New York State is moving into the information economy, take a look at how our libraries are doing.
Unfortunately, they aren’t doing well.

The plight of libraries in the State reveals a public agenda that is out of
whack. While state governmental leaders have caught on to the emergence of the information economy and have been generous in allocating public funds to the tune of 100s of millions of dollars for academic research in information technologies, libraries have been off the radar and now are targeted for a 15% cut in the State Budget.

Libraries are not only part of the State’s civic and education legacy; they
are a critical component of the State’s current and future informational
infrastructure. They have the great capacity to provide the public access to
electronic resources valuable for job searching, education and access by
researchers to specialized journals. Special needs like those of the blind
and physically handicapped are also met by libraries. In cities, suburbs and small towns across the State, the public library is a primary public asset serving all ages and all income groups.

New York’s libraries have evolved into a complex web capable serving the
clients with a wide diversity of needs. The New York State Library, one of
the 125 largest research libraries in North America, has a collection of over
20 million items including law, social and health services, legislative
items, technology, federal and state government documents, and manuscripts and rare books. It is more than this extensive source of information as it also is a leader and partner of the State’s 74 library systems.

New York’s library resources have been grouped into three categories: public library systems, reference and research library resources systems and school library systems. There are over 740 public libraries funded locally with over 1,000 outlets in the State. Every K-12 public school is required to have a library and over 1,600 special libraries serve employees of government, hospitals, law firms, business and other organizations. Various cooperative and cost saving services like inter-library loan requests and delivery, central buying of materials, coordinated collection development and system-wide planning for technology and other resource sharing make up the ties between the diverse library components.

The opportunities and challenges of electronic resources like the internet
have increased the relevancy and importance of libraries when it comes to
matters of education, business, employment and communication.

To foster economic growth, the State has recognized the importance of
intellectual technology (IT) and bio-tech research in higher educational
institutions and has funded faculty development, capital facilities and
centers for advanced technology (CAT) development programs.

What has been missing in the state is a comprehensive vision and strategy for developing an information economy that will benefit all of the citizens of the state. It is fine to have focused engines of research across the state,
but we need the right infrastructure and programs assuring maximum
informational access to assure these engines will deliver for all our
communities and citizens.

What has happened with our libraries reveals that New York doesn’t have its act together. Libraries have been left to fend for themselves over the last decade as the State has moved into the new world of electronic information. Nothing shows this clearer than the fact that the $75.6 million allocated for libraries in the Governor’s 2003-4 budget is close to what they received in 1993 before the online age began. Libraries have not received any sustained increases in state aid since 1998.

It isn’t that our approximately 7000 libraries haven’t been trying to meet
the needs and challenges of the information age. NOVEL (the New York Online Virtual Electronic Library), for example, was established with the goal of offering all New Yorkers online access to costly education, business, employment, and other information age material. The State has assisted in the distribution of $17 million from Bill Gates’ foundation to provide computers and software for public libraries in poverty areas.

Looking ahead, the Board of Regents has proposed a ten item $107 million
investment in 21st century libraries entitled New Century Libraries. Under
this initiative, NOVEL will be expanded and a new generation of highly
skilled librarians will be recruited. Librarians play an increasingly
important role as advisors and instructors in helping us navigate the
overwhelming glut of information.

States like Ohio and Georgia have advanced their economic development
strategies by moving way ahead of New York in providing electronic resources through their library systems. Under the proposed budget and the impact from local budget problems, our libraries are facing serious service reductions. New York City libraries have had to close one day a week as a result effecting researchers and all other users.

Not only should the proposed cuts in library funding be rejected and the New Century Library initiative be embraced, but it is overdue for integrating libraries with the state’s economic development and quality of life strategy. Lets see some state of the art goals for 21st century libraries. A useful step could be creation of a library technology partnership trust fund supported either voluntarily or by taxation of businesses in the IT economy.

It is these businesses that benefit the most from what libraries provide in
way of wiring the body public and educating a tech savvy workforce.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com