THE SAD FACT is that New York's public libraries for several years became the educational orphans of New York's Legislature. While legislators showered the university system and public schools with hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid, they shorted the public libraries -- although 60 percent of all New Yorkers use them every year.
Even in the last four years, as the tide turned slightly better for libraries, actual annual spending still fell $42 million short of what the State Legislature had promised to spend on them from 1991-1994.
It wasn't that these promised annual allocations were demanding, considering the benefits and wide public use of the libraries. In the current year, the libraries were supposed to receive $88 million. What they got was $81 million, $7 million short but still the most generous outlay of recent years.
In this part of the state, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system received $270,000 when it should have gotten $292,000. Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties got $84,000 instead of $88,000. The Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System got $73,000 rather than $76,000.
That's penny-pinching without purpose.
Right now, of course, Albany leaders are stitching together a budget for the coming year and trying desperately to close a truly tough shortfall of $4 billion or more.
Libraries cannot expect to escape all economizing. But Gov. George Pataki's suggested $81 million for next year, the same as this year's outlay, should be a rock-bottom figure.
Better that the Legislature add to his request and carve savings, as the State Library Association suggests, from $38 million originally sought for a modernized system that would tie together local libraries and regional networks in new ways, hooking them into the information highway. With this, someone in Amherst or Orchard Park, whose local branches lacked some specialized information, could search the entire state library system and obtain it more quickly from a branch in Albany or Manhattan.
Recognizing Albany's budget woes, the State Library Association has asked only for an $11 million down payment on the $38 million project in the next budget year.
That shrunken request is contained in a proposal -- co-sponsored by Sens. Dale M. Volker, Mary Lou Rath and Jess J. Present but, incredibly, by not a single member of the Assembly from Western New York -- that should be adopted in the new budget, along with a regular annual appropriation as close to the $88 million as possible.
Information systems that quicken the exchange of materials among distant local branches utilize shared library resources more efficiently across and around the state. They improve the invaluable free services for millions of New Yorkers, whether it is data for high school research papers, job opportunities or bond investments, or just a good mystery, traditionally provided by the public library. And you don't need to pay tuition to get it.
New York public libraries, so widely used, have earned the necessary state financial assistance so often denied.