By Julie Chang
By the time Erica Chisolm moved to Austin at the age of 20, she still didn’t know how to read. The New Orleans-native had never found an interest in books and didn’t finish high school. Fast forward eight years, Chisolm now credits the Austin City Library for kindling her love of reading, putting her on the path toward obtaining a GED and equipping her with the skills to home school one of her children.
“I feel good about the library and that’s where I get my GED books. I know I improved because I know how to read books and use the computer,” said Chisolm. “I also learned to keep quiet.”
Yet the services that Chisolm has relied on over the years are at threat as state budget cuts are poised to zero out funds to all but one statewide library program during the current legislative session. House and Senate versions of the budget would cut statewide library programs over the next two years by about $30 million—a 90 percent decrease from the previous biennium. The programs that would face the brunt of the cuts include online research databases to public schools, universities and libraries across the state. Programs that provide grants to maintain public library operating hours and other public services would lose all funds. Advocates fear that the cuts—the worst in recent memory—would paralyze libraries in the long run.
“What we hear statewide is this is a time for everyone to tighten their belt, and we, as an industry and service sector, are willing to do that,” says Gloria Meraz, director of communications for the Texas Library Associations. “But what we are asking for are just funds to keep those programs viable and strong so that we can rebuild them later.”
Online research databases are collections of digitized research material like books, academic articles, videos or images that students and the public can access for free through their libraries. Individuals who do not have access to these databases through libraries might have to pay upwards of $60 for an article, Meraz says.
Yet the state budget would eliminate all funding for the program that delivers access to databases for Texas students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
“This is program that really equalizes access to all Texas students,” says Meraz. “A fifth grader in the smallest district in Texas will have the core access that is equivalent to students in the best district in the state. This program has been the lynchpin of a lot of research for students.”
TexShare, which provides university and public libraries with certain databases, is the only statewide program that will continue receiving funds although the House and Senate proposals have cut its support by 60 percent since last biennium. Although the state pays for the majority of TexShare’s databases, the University of Texas Libraries contribute about two-thirds of its annual budget for access to the program’s databases as well as to others. With threats to TexShare, University of Texas Libraries speculates it would have to eliminate certain multidisciplinary databases.
“They are very heavily used particularly by undergraduates throughout the state. They are the core of what TexShare offers,” says Sue Phillips, executive associate director of University of Texas Libraries. “But we’re doing the very best we can to maintain our services to our community.”
Phillips also says that UT libraries have already shouldered a 10 percent reduction this fiscal year due to the university’s cash-strapped budget.
Still, advocates believe that the cuts come at an especially inopportune time when local libraries have seen an increase in attendance and material circulation in recent years. Meraz says that in 2009, 80 million Texans visited their libraries and circulation increased by seven percent. The Austin City Library system had 3.7 million visitors in 2010, a 30 percent increase from 2000, according to David Spradling, librarian and service manager of Austin’s Faulk Central Library.
Spradling attributes the upswing in patrons to the economic slump and the library’s ability to provide free services to the community. Although lending books and DVDs still remain the library’s most utilized services, an increasing amount of visitors take advantage of the library’s free English language classes, wireless Internet, job training, resume building and computer classes or just the air conditioning.
“When people aren’t finding jobs, they use our computers to do job searches or put in applications. People who don’t know how to use computers come in to get training,” says Spradling. “We provide things that maybe you couldn’t afford at home.”
As more print material goes digital, libraries are adapting by cutting back on buying new print reference material and instead, providing more database-accessible computers on site and lending out electronic books. Currently, Austin library cardholders can check out and read a small selection of electronic books from their home computers for a limited-day period free of charge. The Austin library system is still working on implementing a wider lending network where patrons can download e-books onto their electronic readers like the Amazon Kindle or the Nook.
Advocates say that innovations like these are what keep the library relevant in the community today.
“There is a misconception that libraries are not used as frequently,” says Tim Staley, executive director of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, which advocates and fundraises for the city’s library. “Whatever the technology might be, the library will be the sole institution that provides the community with equal access to information and knowledge.”
Librarians are a fundamental component to the budget cuts to libraries. Below are some librarians’ perspectives on the budget cuts and importance of libraries to the communities they are a part of. They are just one voice in the state-wide monetary dialogue.
Dennis Trombatore, Librarian UT Geology Library
Cara Russell, Librarian Dripping Springs Library
Pauline Lam, Librarian Cedar Park Library