Public Libraries: Providing vital access with far less, needing more because much more is being asked.

Much of the focus in the media these days has been directed toward the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.  Signups are occurring online and the system is working well now, but how is the target audience – the historically uninsured population, those that need the relief the most – able to sign up?  The answer is through their public libraries.

The top source for internet access for households making less than $30,000 annually, and for one-third of African-American and Hispanic-American households in New York is the Public Library system.  In fact, over 300 librarians in 62 counties received State training to provide direct support for enrollment in the New York State of Health Marketplace and have helped tens of thousands of people to gain access to affordable health care.

Public libraries are providing this important access for other pressing matters as well: They provide the primary portal to accessing employment websites for millions of New Yorkers and providing online educational opportunities for those who need it most.  Simply put, libraries have expanded their central role of providing access to information to the general public by making available the technology tools that too many in our society lack.

However, the public libraries of our state are being asked to take on this expanded mission without expanded resources.  The funds provided by New York State to our public libraries is $81.6 million, the same amount allocated to them 16 years ago, a figure over 20 percent below the statutory formula that governs the funding and 36 percent below the inflation rate.  Doing more with less is a common mantra in an era of declining resources, but the Education Law aid formulas under which libraries receive their funding are actually increasing at a rate of four percent per year.

A wise plan would be to recognize the increased importance of the vital societal mission public libraries are providing and find a way to get the funding levels back to where they need to be.  This can be accomplished in reasonable steps, over a period of the next few years, stepping up the aid at levels slightly above that four percent rate.

Yesterday, the Governor proposed a new $2 billion bond act for school technological needs, also mentioning that students should be allowed progress at their own pace and to obtain the skills to succeed in the 21st Century economy.  For this to succeed, we need to remember that those students have after school and weekend needs as well, and that the access point for many will be their public library.

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