Thanks to a $28,000 grant from the federal government, seniors in the small town of Portland, Texas, can learn about the internet, email and other technology in classes their local library provides among the stacks, at the senior center and at the Dairy Queen. But their classes could soon come to an end.
“We’ve trained about 3,000 people in the community, and we’ve been funded three years in a row,” said RoseAleta Laurell, the library’s director. “Unfortunately, this is going to be our last year of funding.”
The federal government is threatening to cut about 70 percent of its annual funding for Texas public libraries, because it says the state has failed to pull its own weight in library funding. As a result, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission would have to cut the competitive grant funds that in 2014 gave more than $1.5 million to programs like the Portland library's Seniors in Cyberspace.
The federal cuts came after state lawmakers in 2011 made an unprecedented 64 percent funding cut in the 2012-13 state library budget. The Library and Archives Commission says it will appeal the federal decision.
Public libraries receive both state and federal funding, and many Texas libraries supplement that revenue with local tax dollars, gifts from charitable foundations and corporate sponsorship. Federal money is allocated by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through its Library Services and Technology Act grants, which are intended to supplement state funding. Texas libraries currently receive an average $10 million per fiscal year in LSTA grants, but federal cuts would reduce that amount to $3 million annually starting in 2014, according to Mark Smith, director of the Library and Archives Commission.
“It would mean the necessity to curtail several programs,” including the competitive grant program, Smith said.
In a Sept. 30 letter to the Library and Archives Commission, Maura Marx, deputy director of the federal Office of Library Services, said the cuts were made because Texas had neglected to fund its own libraries. States are required to demonstrate a “maintenance of effort” of public libraries, Marx wrote, to ensure that federal funds "supplement, rather than replace, State funds.”
The federal agency found that the Texas Legislature had cut funding for libraries more drastically than for other state services in 2011, a violation of the requirements for federal funding.
Smith said the federal cutback would jeopardize statewide library services such as interlibrary loans and the competitive grant program. “The money gives libraries the ability to experiment and do some innovative programs,” he said.
Another program at risk is the To Read or Not to Read program at Singletary Memorial Library in Rusk, which offers ESL classes to Spanish speakers. “It’s so parents can communicate with the public school system that their children are enrolled in, because many of them can’t communicate at all,” said Amy Derrington, the library’s director. The program received a $3,000 grant for 2014.
The 2011 cuts by the state Legislature to Texas libraries were a reaction to tight fiscal predictions. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs estimated that the state would face a budget shortfall as large as $27 billion, so legislators slashed spending. Education and libraries suffered some of the deepest cuts.
Smith said that in 2011 the Library and Archives Commission suffered disproportionate funding cuts, a violation of the federal funding requirement. But he said lawmakers restored 85 percent of that funding this year, and he's hopeful the federal agency will look favorably on Texas' appeal.
While the federal agency considers the state's appeal, Texas librarians continue to hold their breath.
“Without the help from the competitive grants they have available, we’re very limited in terms of what we can offer,” Derrington said. “Libraries are on tight budgets everywhere.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that federal cuts would reduce LSTA grant funding for Texas libraries to $3 million annually starting in 2015.