ANNAPOLIS — Public libraries these days face some hard choices: Do they buy more computers so people can surf the Internet or start a bookmobile program in poor neighborhoods?
Library representatives met with Eastern Shore lawmakers Friday to discuss these pressures. They also asked them to send more money their way.
“With downsizing, corporations say they’re lean, mean and green…. At this point we’re lean…we’re mean to the people who work for us… and we’re not very green,” said Charles Powers, library administrator for Queen Anne’s County.
The rising costs of new technology and public demand for electronic information has led to severe growing pains throughout the state, Denise Davis, a technology specialist for the state library system, said in a phone interview.
“There’s been a real push to include electronic library services, and the budgets have not kept up….It’s a blessing and a nightmare all at the same time,” she said.
The state gives money to libraries based on the number of people in their counties. One bill, which the panel asked Eastern Shore lawmakers to support, would increase that amount from $9.25 to $10.25 per capita.
Since rural libraries serve fewer people, they have smaller budgets. But they are under the same pressure as large library systems to offer new technology like Internet access and electronic databases, the panel said.
Wicomico County Free Library currently has 12 computers with full Internet access, said Director Kathleen Reif. She is convinced it is a necessary service.
“I was once of the people in the beginning who thought this was the snake oil salesman, trying to sell us all this technology. But it really levels the playing field for people who wouldn’t be able to have access,” she said.
But the costs of training staff and maintaining computer systems have fallen to libraries barely able to keep their doors open.
Some traditional library services, like reading programs and buying special books, have been sacrificed to fund technology advances, library officials said.
When lawmakers hinted that private companies like Microsoft or Bell Atlantic could be asked to share the costs, Rief was guarded. Even when companies donate equipment, she said, libraries must find staff and money to maintain it.
“That’s like telling an alcoholic there’s a glass of scotch in front of them. You have all the technology and equipment, but you can’t afford the monthly fees and access charges,” she said.
The panel specifically asked the Eastern Shore delegation to kick in state money for Sailor, a service maintained by libraries that allows Maryland residents to access the Internet for free.
That project was started with seed money from the federal government, and continues to gobble up most of those funds, officials said. If the state assumed Sailor’s costs, the federal dollars could be used for other library projects.
The panel also wants Gov. Parris N. Glendening to allocate more money for regional libraries, which offer support services to a pool of county libraries in the same area.
Regional libraries once coordinated fairly traditional functions like inter-library book loan programs.
But as technology has advanced, they have become responsible for teaching library staff to use new software and maintaining online catalogs. They have also been particularly hard hit by budget cuts, Powers said.
The state used to give the Eastern Shore Regional Library $700,000 in annual aid. In 1992, that yearly amount was cut to $480,000, an amount that has remained flat. Since then they have laid off 12 of their 21 workers, Powers said. “The regional library picture was very rosy in the early 1990s…. Now we’re in a situation where we’re slowly dying,” he said. -30-