Against Backdrop of Severe Budget Cuts, Conferees Propose New Role for Libraries

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Washington--Delegates to a White House conference on libraries this month crafted an ambitious set of recommendations designed to catapult the nation's libraries into the "information age" and to place them at the center of the education-reform movement.

But for many of the more than 2,000 conference-goers here, this futuristic vision was clouded by a financial crisis in library services that librarians in some cities say is worse than during the Great Depression.

In New York City, for example, local budget cuts have forced one of the nation's premier public-library systems to shut down some branches two or three days a week. The city, faced with a potential budget deficit of more than $2 billion over two years, has cut $25 million in funding for its more than 200 public libraries.

Nationwide, public libraries are also cutting back drastically on special services, such as literacy programs and storytelling hours, according to a recent survey by the American Library Association.

In contrast, at the low point of the Depression, some members of the Congress at the meeting pointed out, Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston actually increased the number of librarians in that city's public-library system to 600. Currently, 485 librarians are employed by Boston's public libraries.

The crunch extends to school libraries as well.

The number of school libraries in California, for instance, has been reduced by one-half over the past decade, by one estimate. Of the more than 7,350 schools in the state, only about 1,000 now have libraries or media centers, according to the American Association of School Librarians.

"Whatever celebratory quality this event was meant to have when the President and the Congress authorized it three years ago has already been compromised," Richard C. Wade, chairman of New York State's delegation to the White House conference, wrote in an essay released at the meeting.

"The severe crisis brought on by the recession and the deepening fiscal troubles enmeshing state and local governments," he continued, "has crippled libraries everywhere."

'Lifelong Learning' Centers

The Congressionally mandated conference was the culmination of nearly a year of smaller meetings across the country on the future of libraries. Its 900 official delegates from 50 states and six territories included government representatives and library supporters and trustees, as well as librarians from schools, public libraries, and universities.

The group's report will be forwarded to President Bush and the Congress later this year.

The conferees' final 94 recommendations focused heavily on education issues and the notion of libraries as "centers of lifelong learning.''

That theme was echoed by Mr. Bush, who addressed the group at the start of the meeting.

"A revolution in our schools is transforming a nation at risk into a nation of students; and libraries and information services stand at the center of this revolution," he said.

Despite the President's encouraging words, many librarians and speakers at the conference contended that federal education-reform efforts have so far largely excluded libraries and ignored their fiscal plight.

"Here we are talking about education reform," said Thomas Sobol, New York State's commissioner of education and a delegate to the conference. "Here is the President with [his school-reform plan] America 2000 calling for us to be first in the world in education, and there we are closing the libraries."

"You cannot go on reforming schools and simultaneously closing libraries," Mr. Sobol said.

In an effort to make libraries a vital force in education reform, the delegates recommended that Mr. Bush formally recognize libraries as educational agencies and specifically include them in legislation, regulations, and policy statements that deal with educational issues--particularly those related to the America 2000 plan.

The delegates also called for an increase in federal funding for libraries. According to the American Library Association, federal money accounts for less than 2 percent of all funding for libraries. The bulk of library funding--a little more than 80 percent--comes from local governments. The remaining funds are contributed by states and private donors.

The Administration, in its budget proposal for the 1992 fiscal year, recommended cutting federal funds for libraries by 75 percent, to about $35 million. Mr. Bush has also proposed consolidating the funds into a block grant, which would force libraries to compete with other programs for federal money.

Appropriations committees in both the House and the Senate, however, have voted to restore funding for libraries to the current level of $143 million or to increase it slightly.

School Libraries

Of particular concern for the delegates during the July 9-13 conference were the libraries and media centers in the public schools.

Federal funding for those programs was consolidated into block grants beginning in the 1970's. Now, the funds are part of a block grant with as many as 32 other federal programs, including school-reform programs and guidance counseling, according to the library association.

"The first people cut when there are any budgetary problems are those youth-media specialists," said Winona Jones, a Florida delegate to the conference. "We have areas all over the country where the elementary-media specialist has been dismissed."

In some schools, said one witness at a Congressional hearing on libraries held during the conference, "the library media center is in a closet in the hallway served by a part-time staffer."

School librarians said elementary schools have been particularly hard hit by budget cuts because no states mandate elementary-school library services. About a dozen states, in contrast, require secondary schools to have a certified librarian on staff, according to Ann Weeks, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians.

"A prisoner in California has much more likelihood of having access to a library than students do in public schools in that state," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said during the hearing.

To strengthen the school programs, the delegates overwhelmingly approved a proposal urging the federal government to enact legislation to:

    Require every school with 300 or more students to have a full-time, certified library-media specialist.

    Establish an office within the Education Department to oversee school libraries.

    Restore federal categorical funding for school libraries.

    Fund "intergenerational" programs, sponsored by school or public libraries, for senior citizens, "latchkey" children, adolescents, and entire families.

    Provide funds to make school libraries part of a network that would allow them to exchange information and materials with public libraries.

    "There is a realization we've got to collaborate now," Ms. Weeks said. "To provide the widest range of materials at the least cost, you've got to."

'Haves and Have-Nots'

Issues of funding are particularly critical for libraries now, Ms. Weeks and other delegates said, as the volume of information and technology available outstrips the ability of libraries to keep up with it.

Librarians said they feared they would be unable to compete with private, electronic information networks, such as Prodigy or CompuServe, which charge fees for services.

"If we don't address the technological needs, we're going to become a society of information haves and have-nots," Ms. Weeks said.

"If we're talking about the future of education," she said, "this is surely something we're going to have to deal with."

Some school and public libraries, particularly in poor or rural areas, do not even have a telephone, according to delegates here.

To address the growing possibility of inequities, the delegates called on the federal government to work toward the creation of a fiber-optic information network that would extend to every home and business in the nation.

They also urged the government to include public and school libraries in proposed plans for a national, privately operated high-speed computer "superhighway" linking universities around the country. Legislation to create such a system, known as the National Research and Education Network, is pending before the Congress.

In other matters, the delegates recommended:

Changing the name of the Education Department to the Department of Education and Library and Information Services.

Creating a "library corps" to bolster the librarian force by offering loan forgiveness or scholarships to library-science students who agreed to serve in the geographic areas where they were most needed.

Funding programs designed to enable libraries to better serve the needs of linguistic and cultural minorities.

The conference was the second of its kind authorized by the Congress. The first White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, held in 1979, yielded 64 recommendations for the federal government on a wide range of issues, including new library programs to combat illiteracy and to provide employment-information assistance. Fifty-five of those proposals were adopted.

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