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‘Precarious position’ for libraries as patrons’ critical needs grow

Joe Mahoney, CNHI State Reporter
Posted 12/20/22

Libraries across New York are grappling with “a moment of uncertainty and tumult” as staffers struggle to deliver services to the public while coping with tight funding.

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‘Precarious position’ for libraries as patrons’ critical needs grow


ALBANY — Libraries across New York are grappling with “a moment of uncertainty and tumult” as staffers struggle to deliver services to the public while coping with tight funding, a top library advocate said Thursday.

Lauren Moore, the state Education Department’s assistant commissioner for libraries, told lawmakers the Regents Council on Libraries and the State Library she directs consulted with library workers over the past two years to get their take on the resource challenges they are facing.

“We heard that as the pandemic and its effects have strained crucial social infrastructure, libraries have become increasingly tasked with meeting critical needs of communities, such as job seeking assistance, literacy instruction, and digital skills training, as well as access to services not always associated with libraries like telehealth and social work assistance,” Moore told members of the Assembly Committee on Libraries. The resulting stress from attempting to respond to the needs without additional funding, Moore said, has placed the libraries in a “precarious position.”

Lawmakers are expected to begin reviewing a proposed state budget next month after the spending plan is released next month by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Once negotiations conclude on the fiscal blueprint, libraries will know how much state aid will be included and how much money will be earmarked for construction and other physical improvements to buildings.

The current state budget provided $99.6 million in state aid for libraries, though the Education Department recommends it be increased in the coming year to $104.6 million. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents is asking that library construction capital funding be boosted from $34 million to $45 million. “Construction aid helps libraries become more sustainable and will allow libraries to support community resilience during future disasters,” Moore said.

Lawmakers also heard about school library staffing issues from Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon, director of legislation for the New York State United Teachers.

Rodriguez-Rolon said the union supports legislation that would require all school buildings to employ a certified library media specialist, with the measure providing flexibility depending on the size of the student population and the financial health of the school district as well as the availability of certified school librarians.

The number of professional staffers working in public school libraries, she said, has fallen sharply since 2013. As for local library systems, many are yearning to have “up to date modern infrastructure” that will allow them to correspond to the evolving needs of patrons, said Lisa Kropp, director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library.

“What was most powerful for me throughout the pandemic was the commanding strength of human connections that libraries provided,” Kropp said. “Many libraries became drop-off points for local food pantries, or started little free pantries on library grounds as food insecurities expanded in our communities.”

In addition, she said: “They collaborated with school districts to help distribute free lunches to families. They worked outside of the box of the physical library building and sustained their communities amid a powerful disruption.”

Kropp also pointed out that public libraries “do not receive anywhere near the vast dollar amounts that school districts do when it comes to state aid.”

The leasing arrangements for libraries to access electronic books has created its own financial challenges as libraries seek to connect patrons with those materials.

John Spears, director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, said if the e-books accessed by the system’s patrons represented a single branch of the network, “it would be our busiest branch by far, accounting for 25 to 30% or more of our circulation.”

Spears noted about 30% of the library’s budget is for electronic materials. “That is huge when you think about the fact we don’t actually own these materials,” he said.


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