Library Cuts Run Deeper Than They Appear

Public schools, libraries, and even the attorney general could lose access to services

Library cuts at the state level could ultimately affect Austin's thriving library community.
Library cuts at the state level could ultimately affect Austin's thriving library community.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Unless lawmakers take action – or the Legislative Budget Board adopts an alternate recommendation from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission – the next state budget will totally eliminate at least three key statewide library programs.

The proposed budgets filed by both the House and Senate would eliminate funding not only for the Loan Star Libraries program, which delivers direct state aid to many of Texas' more than 500 local public libraries, but also for the TexShare program and its K-12 equivalent, which allow library patrons and public schools access to high-quality online databases. State Librarian Peggy Rudd says the cuts would be devastating. She expected cuts to her agency, she says, but when she saw the draft budget, "It was pretty much shock and awe."

According to the draft recommendations, the budget calls for a $28 million reduction in general revenue funding for the TSLAC, which administers funding and programs that help libraries across the state. The drastic cuts mean the agency also stands to lose roughly $8 million in federal funds because Texas would slip below the "maintenance of effort" standard that triggers the release of federal dollars. According to Rudd, the total budget for the agency – including all revenue sources – would drop from roughly $71.5 million in 2010-11 to $48 million for the coming biennium. It's a "total decimation of the statewide library program," says Gloria Meraz, communications director for the Texas Library Association.

The Loan Star program, conceived by Rudd in 1999, allows individual public libraries to seek state grants to provide for any number of services, such as materials acquisition, computers and Internet access, and work force development programs. Rudd got the idea after working in Virginia and Florida, two states with long histories of direct support for public libraries, she says. In 2001, she won legislative support for the program, which got up and running with a $2.9 million state investment in 2002. The grants steadily increased, with a total of $7.9 million spent last year. Altogether, says Rudd, the program has given out a little more than $41 million in grants.

In 2010, 541 of the state's 561 public libraries received grant money from the $6 million the state allocated. In all, she notes, that's only 24 cents per Texan to fund the program. "It's not a huge amount, but it makes a huge difference in communities across the state," says Meraz. For example, she points to the current trend of funding work force development with Loan Star funds, in part by ensuring access to technology and programs that help diversify and educate workers. "We're trying so hard to be a forward-moving state and to improve our work force," she says. "When you ... don't have the infrastructure to support that, we're really pulling the rug out from under us."

Most states fund community libraries with an investment of roughly 10% of their budgets; even with the Loan Star program, Texas has only been kicking in about 1% of total public library funding. The program is modest but delivers serious bang for the buck, say Meraz and Rudd.

Equally troubling is the proposed elimination of the TexShare program, a geographic and socioeconomic equalizer allowing the state's public libraries – from far-flung rural libraries to those at the state's largest research institutions – to share the cost of providing access to high-quality information. The program allows the state to purchase in bulk the rights to databases – everything from newspapers to genealogy programs to scholarly journals to Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps – which in turn allows every public library to offer access. The impact is monumental, Meraz and Rudd say. "Living in Aber­nathy, Texas, or Mason, or wherever you'd be, with TexShare you have access to the same core resources as the largest research libraries in Texas," says Rudd. This is especially important when you consider that 80% of Texas' public libraries are considered rural and depend heavily on access to resources funded by the state, says Meraz.

The state does not fund all of the TexShare program; individual libraries pay fees into the program to help pay for it. Austin's public libraries last year paid $16,000 in fees, says Meraz. If Austin had to go it alone to provide the same resources, she says, the city would pay roughly $1.1 million.

One proposed solution – charging the libraries more in fees – simply isn't feasible for most participants, say Meraz and Rudd. Same goes for TexShare's K-12 version, which provides access to the "same kind of source material" as well as "core training materials" for teachers. The state pays $2.5 million per year to provide access for every Texas school district; without the state's purchasing power, the "collective cost" to the districts to secure the same access would be $22 million. Put simply, says Rudd, when you're "negotiating for the entire state, you can get the best deal possible."

The budget axe is slated to chop through other programs as well, notably including the Texas State Law Library, which would be eliminated if the current budget – zeroing out its $1.1 million in funding – passes. That would be a devastating blow, say members of the legal community. The library not only houses historic legal documents, serves as a public-access reference library, and provides research services for the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Texas Attorney General's Office – it is also a vital resource for pro se litigants and prisoners, for whom the library runs a fee-based court-file copying service. As Carl Reynolds of the Office of Court Administration wrote in the criminal justice-focused Grits for Breakfast blog last week, the TSLL maintains a "broader range of materials than public or county law libraries and we often receive requests for help from these institutions." Only 59 of Texas' 254 counties "maintain any type of legal collection," and not all of those have publicly accessible legal materials.

In short, the proposed cuts to the state's libraries are "overwhelming" and "staggeringly shortsighted," says Meraz. The state certainly needs to make serious cuts, she says, but it's hard to comprehend slashing programs that are fiscally efficient and are of such benefit to the state's goals of staying competitive.

Rudd's agency has come up with an alternate proposal directing $3.5 million over the biennium to the TexShare program and $3 million to Loan Star – and also transferring $3 million from the Texas Education Agen­cy to pay for the K-12 version of TexShare. Rudd will appear before the Senate Committee on Finance on Feb. 17.

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