Albany's reluctance to provide libraries around the state with more generous support has never made sense. School libraries, public libraries and research and other special libraries all have indisputable value. But while they may win favorable political rhetoric, when the money is passed out, other assets often win more cash.
Too bad, really, because this is one asset that lives up to what's advertised.
Libraries are less a special interest than everybody's interest. They're everybody's high-school and college classroom. They're a beacon for self-improvement. Their impressive services are mostly free.
In a culture of rapid change, information that helps the public stay current benefits people at any economic or educational level.
This is not to say that state government has done nothing for libraries. But there are increasingly urgent needs as information technology changes. And libraries are an area where more is markedly better than less.
State financial aid for libraries flows along two major tracks. One, for basic kinds of operating funds, was embedded in 1990 legislation. Much to his credit, Gov. Pataki has proposed that this year, for the first time since then, lawmakers fully fund what the 1990 legislation suggests: $88.5 million for the new fiscal year.
The Legislature should do it.
The second Albany funding track for libraries, although much smaller, targets the obvious need to push, pull and smooth libraries through technical transformations onto the information highway.
In New York today there are a growing number of what are called Electronic Doorway Libraries. Once a generic term, it has become an official designation conferred on libraries by the State Education Department.
Many libraries possess computers used for internal housekeeping, such as computerizing records. But an Electronic Doorway Library goes beyond that. It is any library with at least one computer linked to the Internet that patrons can use. It may be more than that, of course, but it must have at least that minimum capability.
The New York Library Association, along with the state Board of Regents, is backing an Electronic Doorway Library Services bill sponsored by, among others, Arthur Eve, D-Buffalo, Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, and Richard Keane, D-Buffalo, in the Assembly and Mary Lou Rath, R-Amherst, in the Senate. The bill would provide $11.4 million a year in special aid. The money could be used to buy Internet-connected computers and modems, or to train library personnel or help libraries subscribe to valuable databases tailored to school curriculums and other electronically accessed special information.
How timely this would be for Buffalo public schools, where plans call for upgrading all high-school libraries, with essential rewiring scheduled for completion in mid-1999. The schools have accumulated $4 million in capital funds for this purpose. The special Albany aid would help make this update workable.
Albany failed to enact the Electronic Doorway Library Services bill last year, although it did appropriate $2 million for these purposes. Buffalo schools got $12,000. The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library received $33,000, which it used to purchase 16 new computers.
Just how much work remains to be done in these technical upgrades can be glimpsed in these facts: Fewer than 30 percent of Buffalo schools have libraries equipped with Electronic Doorway services -- and some of them have only the minimum single computer station -- and only 40 percent of all 741 public library systems and branches across the state are so equipped.
Regrettably, Pataki did not recommend adoption of the Electronic Doorway Library Services bill. So the responsibility falls to the Assembly and Senate. They should pass it and provide the modest $11.4 million sought by the bill's supporters.