Remarks by Abby S. Milstein Trustee, The New York Public Library Co-Chair, Regents Commission on Library Services Before the New York State Board of Regents December 16, 2004
A little more than six years ago, the New York State Board of Regents appointed a commission charged with taking a visionary look at library service in New York State and developing a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to improve library service for all New Yorkers. The commission was composed of 17 individuals from various parts of the State, and from various parts of the library world. We worked diligently for more than two years, identifying problems, arguing through solutions, researching programs in other states, surveying public opinion, holding hearings around the State, and finally writing a detailed report in which we laid out 10 recommendations which would enable New Yorkers to realize the benefits of a strong library system in the 21st century. I presented our report, entitled Library Service in the New Century, to you at your meeting in July of 2000. When I finished my remarks, and had answered your questions, while I was still present in the room, you took the extraordinary step of immediately and unanimously adopting the recommendations as Regents policy. You subsequently designated the recommendations as State Library priorities.
On the day you adopted New Century Libraries, I left your meeting full of optimism about the future of libraries in New York. Yet here I stand, four years later with so little of our vision a reality. The entire library community in New York State is hopeful that in putting New Century Libraries on your meeting agenda today you are signaling a renewed determination to address the urgent needs and enormous potential of our libraries.
Many of you may be at least somewhat familiar with the content of the New Century Libraries report. The 10 recommendations in the report were intended to be taken as an integrated whole, as they embodied a comprehensive vision of library service for all New Yorkers. The Commission engaged in lengthy debate on the order in which to present our recommendations, and even on whether or not to identify them with numbers, because we didn't want to convey a message that one recommendation was more important than another. In the end, considerations of practicality dictated that we should give them numbers, but I want to emphasize that we saw all of the proposals as the necessary and inter-related parts of a coherent whole.
In broad strokes, we saw a future in which all New Yorkers would live in a public library district, and could visit a library that would be accessible, and would, at a minimum, meet current construction standards. The library would fulfill no less than the basic needs of users, even in the poorest areas, and would be striving for excellence through the NY EXCELS Program. The library would address the learning needs of its population through collections and programs that promote literacy, information literacy, and computer literacy for users of all ages. A statewide digital library termed NOVEL would enable libraries all over the State to participate in economical purchasing of digital resources, and enable users all over the State to have remote access through e-library cards. Fully staffed urban libraries would be open all the hours needed to serve their large populations and would offer programs and collections to meet the demand of their very diverse communities. School children would become information literate in strong school library programs. All New Yorkers who have a need for the resources of research and special libraries would gain access to New York's superb collections through enhanced programs of cooperation, and the treasures themselves would be preserved for posterity. A diverse cadre of librarians would be skilled in the new roles required of them. Libraries of all types would be supported by efficient, effective system leadership. The New York State Library would provide a platform of support and advocacy for all of New York's libraries and library users.
In the four years since you adopted New Century Libraries as Regents policy, some strides have been made, but the broad vision has not been realized. What progress there has been has come about in three ways: the use of Federal grant money, some private grants, and through the deployment of existing State staff. There has been no new State money to fund your policy of New Century Libraries, or any other new library agenda. Furthermore, budgetary pressures have caused the Library Development staff to decrease by 50% since you adopted New Century Libraries, so that much of the staff efforts will now have to be deferred.
Our first recommendation was to properly develop and support NOVEL , the New York Online Virtual Electronic Library. NOVEL is not a frill or a gimmick. In today's world, providing access to digitized resources is a central part of the offerings of a modern library. Because you made NOVEL Regents policy, Janet Welch, the State Librarian, has used money from the Federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and existing staff to press forward with a smaller scale version of NOVEL. NOVEL currently offers users from 5000 participating libraries access to hundreds of databases. Those libraries are taking advantage of the opportunity to save 30 times on the cost of those databases due to the economies of scale obtained through central purchasing. But the full concept and benefits of NOVEL have yet to be achieved. Over two thousand libraries, mostly in schools, are still without access. There has been no support for libraries to digitize their unique collections, no enhanced opportunities for high-speed network access, no shared electronic catalogues of the holdings of all types of libraries and no establishment of Empire QuickLoan, a program which would simplify borrowing and transporting printed materials across the State. New York State is not funding NOVEL. The Commission's recommendation for NOVEL which was not meant to be extravagant, was for more than 5 times the amount now being spent in LSTA funds. New York is falling further and further behind other states in funding electronic libraries. In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, New York was fourteenth in statewide database licensing, behind such states as Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas. While Texas spent over $9 million in state funds, New York spent nothing. Furthermore, the 5 percent cut in State funding in the latest version of the 2005 fiscal year State budget, with its corresponding cut in LSTA money and cuts in State staff, will mean that NOVEL will shrink rather than grow.
The Commission's second recommendation, the ensuring of information literacy among elementary school students, is one you had endorsed in principle before the report was final. We urged you to follow through on your beginning and reverse decades of inattention to the library needs of our students, particularly in the less advantaged school districts in our State. Four years after you adopted New Century Libraries, there are still 860 schools, most of them elementary, without a certified school library media specialist. There is no funding targeted to improve student access to adequate and appropriate resources and technology. Library media resource expenditures have been falling in our large cities at the same time that they have been dropping at the State level. The technological age brings a risk of exacerbating the gap in skills and achievement of students in rich districts and in poor ones. It is urgent that we address this problem head on.
The persistent problem of a large number of New Yorkers living outside the chartered service area of any public library was one of the major topics identified for the Commission to address when we began our work in 1998. This thorny problem is not amenable to an easy or perfect solution. New Century Libraries walks a fine line to preserve cherished existing libraries and yet offer a mechanism for change to bring service to the unserved. It calls for a five-year effort to use incentives and support to encourage public libraries to evolve into Public Library Districts . Among its goals are election of trustees and a public vote on the library budget, as experience has shown that this almost always results in greater local support for libraries. In the four years since you adopted New Century Libraries, even without any funding for the effort, a few areas have created Public Library Districts. This has brought the number of unserved people down from 1.3 million to 1.06 million. But there are still those 1.06 million New Yorkers who are deprived of the manifold benefits of access to a public library.
In its fourth recommendation, New Century Libraries focused on equity and addressed the huge disparity in library support and quality of service throughout New York. The recommendation called for need-based State support to ensure a minimum of $20 in per capita spending in all libraries so that every New Yorker could enjoy the benefits of the most basic library service. At the time of the Commission's study, per capita spending throughout the State ranged from $2 to more than $200. While other states are increasing their spending in this area, New York is cutting back. A second prong of this recommendation was to offer need-based enabling aid and incentive aid through the NY EXCELS program to encourage service excellence. The State has offered some small grants from its LSTA allocation for projects aimed at achieving excellence, but there is no established, funded New York State program.
New Century Libraries calls for significant State support for construction, expansion, and renovation of libraries. Libraries must meet building codes, must be adapted to today's technology, and must be accessible for the many New Yorkers with disabilities. At the time we wrote our report, documented needs stood at $800,000,000. Today the figure is over $1 billion. Even with advancements in technology, libraries are still physical places. They are physical repositories. They are quiet spaces. They are gathering spots for story hours and adult education. They are the physical site for computers and computer instruction for millions of New Yorkers. They are community centers for learning and living together. The average funding for public library construction in the 50 states is $.16 per capita. In New York it is only $.04 per capita. New York has provided no new on-going funding and no new one-time funding. A problem of this magnitude won't be solved overnight. But you must know that this problem won't go away. The situation will only get worse over time.
Urban libraries in New York State serve all of their residents. They don't need incentives to reach out to the unserved. But they do need help to meet the unique needs and challenges of densely populated, diverse, disadvantaged communities. New Century Libraries calls for State support to improve the capacity of urban libraries to meet those needs with support for longer hours of branch operation, for programming and collection development in diverse languages, and for courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages and in citizenship. In the four years since you adopted New Century Libraries, our cities have faced tremendous fiscal difficulties. Economic slowdowns and 9/11 severely reduced the ability of municipalities to continue their traditional levels of funding for libraries. The most appalling example of this problem is the urgent situation facing Buffalo and Erie County. The County has proposed a tremendous reduction in library funding. While a partial restoration may have saved their Main Library, a significant number of branches may have to close.
New Century Libraries called for a significant recognition of the role libraries play as an arm of the educational infrastructure of the State. All libraries need help to meet the needs of our residents for assistance in English and family literacy, for information literacy, and for computer literacy. Without these skills, too many people will be unable to participate fully and productively in the life of the community and the State. With the help of LSTA dollars and some private grants, the New York State Library's Summer Reading Program  has flourished. It has grown from 400,000 participants five years ago to 1 million children in the summer of 2004. That wonderful result only highlights how much could be accomplished if the State were to fund Summer Reading and the many other important programs that enhance literacy on all levels.
The eighth recommendation spoke to the large number of specialized resources and libraries in New York State. New York is home to great treasures. As stewards of irreplaceable items and collections, we must stem the advancing tide of crumbling pages and increase our support for the work of preservation. Our network of academic, research and special libraries is also a great asset. But there has been no new support for preservation or for many other programs, such as digitization of research materials, resource sharing, coordinated collection development, programs to support business and industry, and so many others.
Many librarians have risen to the challenges of the information age and transformed themselves into public educators and guides to the new technological world. New Century Libraries called for a series of concrete programs to ensure a highly skilled library workforce. A federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services  will enable the State to begin to address one part of that goal with a program to recruit a more diverse population of librarians. However, proposals for certification and re-certification, distance learning, teaching libraries and strategies to attract and retain librarians in urban areas remain unfunded.
Tangible progress has been made on the last recommendation in New Century Libraries, the one that calls for an enhanced role for statewide library advocacy. The State Library has exercised leadership. Advocacy clinics, a web site and listserv have kept advocates informed. Commissioner Mills convened a series of seven well-attended Library Advocacy Leadership meetings throughout the State. Beyond these statewide efforts, individual libraries and systems have worked hard to strengthen their advocacy and outreach. At The New York Public Library, a library with which I am extremely familiar, we created an advocacy network of users from each of our 85 branches, whom we mobilized to lobby for library support by meeting with local officials, testifying at hearings, and working on letter-writing campaigns.
When the Commission's report was complete, before my presentation to you, I visited with most of the major organizations in the professional library community in New York State. Prior to that time, each of these groups had engaged in spirited lobbying on behalf of an agenda that their leadership crafted and their membership supported. I urged them to put aside their individual proposals and unite behind New Century Libraries. The report that I presented to you was significantly stronger because it had the endorsement of the New York Library Association, the New York State Association of Library Boards, the Public Library System Directors Organization, the New York State School Boards Association, New York's Regional Library Councils and the Public Library Directors' Association. In the ensuing years, that unity has persisted. The entire organized library community remains committed to New Century Libraries.
The most recent iteration of the State budget for fiscal 2005 would cause library funding levels to regress to those of 1997. And cuts in State funding trigger comparable cuts in Federal funding, thus compounding the consequences. These cutbacks come at a time when library use has surged and libraries' buying power has fallen due to sharply increased costs for materials. Reliance on the State is all the more pressing in the face of severe reductions in local government support. Current State funding for libraries represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire State budget.
The needs are real and urgent. Strong public libraries play a vital role in the lives of individuals and communities. The library is the place where people of all ages go to read and to think and to learn; to acquire information, knowledge and wisdom: to achieve empowerment, autonomy, and success; and to participate in the life of the community and society as a whole. For millions of people, the public library is the portal to the Internet, the source that leads to a job, the essential route to citizenship, the wholesome and safe place for the child to go to after school, the gateway to the community, and the window on the world. Without adequate funding of our public libraries, our democracy, our society and its people are diminished.
Several weeks ago, I spoke in New York City at the last of the seven Library Advocacy Leadership meetings convened by Commissioner Mills. In my closing, I pointed out that libraries had legions of supporters, and that the library community had organized and rallied around the concrete goals and proposals of New Century Libraries. What was needed now, I said, was a champion for our cause, and that it seemed to me that in sponsoring those meetings, Commissioner Mills had taken on that role. Shortly after I spoke, Commissioner Mills rose to make his remarks. It was clear from his inspiring words and from his evident passion, that championing the cause of libraries was very much what he had undertaken. In his speech, he gave the very powerful message that the library community should stop celebrating the mere restoration of proposed cuts in library spending, and instead set our sights on no less than the full enactment of the New Century Libraries vision. I know his message resonated with the audience of library professionals and supporters who were in the room.
On behalf of the Regents Commission on Library Services, and library users and supporters throughout the State, I want to bring that message directly to you, the Board of Regents. Please, do not be limited by the small notion of a few dollars here and there for libraries. And don't make the mistake of thinking that inaction will at least preserve the status quo. The failure to fund your policy of New Century Libraries will inevitably result in relative declines in library service.
You charged the Commission you created with developing a vision for the future that would solve the problems of the past. Vision doesn't come cheaply. But New Century Libraries can be seen as an investment. As with all investments in education, the payoff comes over time and in myriad ways for individuals and for society as a whole. Libraries are at the heart of your charge as Regents. They are an indispensable partner in the education system of New York State. They are a free university, open to all people of all ages. Without your leadership, New York's libraries are in danger of merely drifting along, losing ground as they try to make the best of inadequate budgets. But with your leadership, and with the full realization of New Century Libraries, New York's libraries can shine. Please, be as bold as you asked us to be when you established the Commission more than six years ago. Use your unique position to enable our libraries to be the vibrant source of information, education and inspiration that all New Yorkers deserve.
- Library Service in the New Century (final report of RCOLS)
- New Century Libraries
- Public Library Districts
- Summer Reading Program
- Making it REAL! Recruitment, Education, And Learning: Creating a New Generation of Librarians to Serve All New Yorkers (IMLS grant program)
Last modified: January 5, 2005 -- asm