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MLC concerned with keeping up with tech, funding

Jackson — Contrary to what many people may think, the use of public libraries in the state is going up, not down. While libraries are still providing books and traditional services, they are also being called upon to provide new technology services.

“There’s lots going on in libraries across the state. They’re not just books anymore and have a lot to offer everyone,” said Sharman B. Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission. “For adults, libraries are not what we remember from childhood.”

With so much available at libraries, state funding is crucial and that’s why Smith hopes to receive an increase in the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2006 that begins next July. The agency is asking the Legislature for $15,284,940, an increase of $1.7 million over the current budget.

Smith points out that the Library Commission has had no increase since 2000 and that $600,000 of the requested increase is for the personnel grant program, which is to libraries what the education fund is to teachers. The commission receives 80% of its budget from the state and 20% from the federal government through the Institute of Museums and Library Services.

Of that total funding, 80% passes through the commission to the state’s 243 public libraries as grants. Those grants are in the form of a personnel incentive program which helps pay personnel costs on a per county per capita formula and health and life insurance. The insurance, Smith says, is for library employees who work at least 20 hours per week and is one way small libraries are able to keep employees. There is also $500,000 set aside each year for competitive grants for which libraries develop projects and apply for funding to carry them out.

“Mississippi ranks 14th in the nation in state funding to public libraries,” she said. “The Legislature understands the importance of libraries and has been good about funding them. However, we do have some inadequacies and I hope the Legislature will address them.”

Libraries are no longer just buying books. In this technological age, one book may be purchased in six versions — the regular book that is put on a shelf and checked out, large print version, and the book on tape, CD, DVD and video. Funding, Smith states, has not kept pace with today’s demand.

“We are facing new technologies and need to make them available to library customers,” she said. “At the same time, the demand is not going down for traditional services so we have to do both. It’s difficult to keep up.”

She says that public libraries are a main educational source for people out of school and for much of the state’s population is their only way to use computers and access the Internet. Mississippi has at least one public library in every county. That’s not the case all over the United States, and Smith says she isn’t sure Mississippians always appreciate that fact.

“Libraries are dynamic places. There’s a world of information available and people there to give assistance,” she said. “They are very vital to communities and very much a part of our education.”

There are a total of 1,230 library employees statewide, and Smith says staffing is another concern. “We’re facing the same thing as all professions. Over half of the library directors will be eligible to retire in the next few years and I’m not sure where the replacements will come from,” she said. “The schools are not producing them and a lot who graduate are going into the private sector.”

She said companies are recognizing that the skills librarians have can be useful in many ways. The University of Southern Mississippi has the state’s only program accredited by the American Library Association and graduates 100 to 120 librarians each year.

“We also struggle with operational costs to provide services and keep moving forward,” she added. “If the commission isn’t moving forward, then public libraries aren’t.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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