Inter‑library loan, WiFi and high‑speed broadband access, the MaineInfoNet database and Maine Download Library and services for the those with disabilities or the home‑bound, such as talking books, descriptive videos, large print, books‑by‑mail and more, are library services that are being threatened by federal and state budget negotiations and reductions in funding streams.
The funding streams are confusing, explains Peavey Memorial Library Librarian Dana Chevalier, but at the federal level they are provided by the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and overseen by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Many of the services are seen and used every day by library patrons. Other services are not noticed by most patrons but help their library experiences, like information technology support the library receives to keep its computers up‑to‑date and running smoothly, Webinar workshops taken by library staff and volunteers or staff utilizing regional library consultants for specialized information such as policy and procedures or how to tailor resources on up‑and‑coming subjects.
"Libraries receive extensive benefits, and cuts could have a profound effect on libraries nationwide, particularly small rural ones," says Chevalier.
Maine, on average, receives from IMLS $1.2 million annually that is administered by the Maine State Library. Local libraries benefit from the funds in the form of programs and services, including 70% of the cost of high‑speed broadband services to the 87% of the state's libraries that access the program. At the state level, the Maine Telecommunications Education Access Fund (MTEAF) provides the other 30% of the funds for the broadband service and is administered through the Maine School and Library Network (MSLN). However, because of the way in which Maine's funding stream is structured, the decline of landline phone use has been reducing revenue by about 6% a year since 2010. For example, in 2012 the fund generated $4.2 million of MSLN's total budget of $9 million. In 2016 the funds generated were down to $3.1 million.
Finding new ways to fund broadband
The legislature is wrestling with new ways to fund the MSLN broadband assessment. A bill currently wending its way through committee, LD 256, An Act To Ensure Continued Availability of High‑speed Broadband Internet at Maine's Schools and Libraries, would change the landline funding structure and would convene a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) stakeholders group to determine how to effectively support funding for telecommunications access in libraries and public schools.
PUC Public Advocate Timothy Schneider stated at the public hearing, "This bill offers a simple, straightforward fix to the problem of declining revenues supporting the MTEAF, while providing a path to make the funding mechanism more fair and sustainable over the long run." Bryce Cundick of the Maine Library Association stated that if the decline in funding for high‑speed broadband is not addressed, small rural libraries will bear the brunt of the fall‑out. "The financial burden of this shift will fall more and more to local libraries and schools. ... LD 256 will maintain the MSLN at the level necessary to keep Maine, and all its citizens, rural and urban, rich and poor, connected to the increasingly necessary resources found online."
Cuts would be "disaster"
"It would be a disaster" to see funding cuts, says Suzanne Plaut, librarian at the Lubec Memorial Library. "Maine public libraries don't receive cash, but the only way we could afford the high‑speed Internet is for someone else to pay for it." She praises the LSTA funds and the services provided through the Maine State Library. "The state does an amazing job of sharing information that we need to know about, whether it's Webinar training, education [or] advocacy, and the hands‑on help is priceless."
Along with Chevalier, Plaut points out the importance of the Area Reference and Resource Centers (ARRC); for Downeast libraries this is the Bangor Public Library. "They act as a major resource for smaller libraries."
Chevalier couldn't agree more. "Having access to millions of books through ARRC means that a tiny library becomes limitless." She notes that 70% of Maine's libraries have collections of under 25,000 books. "We can use the Bangor library for loans in and across state lines." Individual libraries have access to the Maine state database, but the ARRC libraries access nationwide databases. In addition, Maine's MARVEL! virtual database provides access to full‑text articles for research. Chevalier points to the expense normally associated with downloading peer‑reviewed articles and reports published in journals and other research‑oriented resources.
Tight local budgets
The Calais Free Library is owned by the municipality and is included in the city's budget, receiving about $160,000 last year. The Eastport and Lubec libraries receive small funding streams from their respective municipalities and are private nonprofits. Last year the Lubec library's budget was about $50,000 with 40 hours of paid staffing spread over four employees. The library is open 32 hours a week and received $4,000 from the town. The Eastport library's budget last year was about $72,500 with $8,750 received from the city. The library is open seven days a week and has 60 hours of paid staffing spread over two employees.
Both librarians recognize the budget pressures felt at the municipal level and depend on their boards, volunteers, friends and special projects to raise the remaining operating revenue. But with their own budgets so tight, and knowing the squeeze that their municipalities are constantly battling, the potential for cuts at the federal and state level is a sobering consideration.
"All people are served here," says Chevalier. "The very fact of its being free makes it open to everyone, and that's the most important part, and we want to keep it that way." Plaut says, "Libraries in small towns are important public spaces. I feel strongly that there should be a place that is free regardless of income level."
Maine State Librarian James Ritter notes that Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin have been "very supportive of LSTA, and we expect them to continue to be, so we have reached out to their offices." He encourages library supporters to call their congressional offices and "simply tell them who you are, what you do, where you live and that you want to make it known that LSTA funding can't be eliminated."