These are busy times for Florida libraries. Books, CDs, DVDs and computers are in high demand. Infrequent visitors have become regulars because of the available technology. Programs for children and adults abound. Providing the what the public wants, how they want it makes public libraries popular. And providing what the public must have — access to online government services and early childhood learning — make libraries essential.
We know that Florida's economy and government budgets are challenged, and as Floridians, we are all in this together. We commend local officials' and legislators' efforts to maintain public services with fewer dollars to go around, and the Florida Library Association is asking these leaders to ensure libraries are adequately supported during these trying times.
The majority of public library funding comes from county and city governments. Library budgets and staff are already smaller because of mandated tax reductions that took effect last October. Spending and hiring freezes are in place, anticipating further reductions as a result of Amendment 1. Budgets for all government services are being cut, and it is only appropriate for libraries to bear their share. We ask, however, that local governments keep any cuts to a minimum.
At the state level, Florida's public libraries receive about $32-million annually from the Legislature. In the context of a $70-billion budget, this is a very small slice of the pie. As recently as 2000-01, state aid to libraries was higher — $33.4-million. While state support is lower today, inflation has driven up costs and libraries are serving more people. In light of budget cuts and past funding shortages, we hope the Legislature can avoid more library cuts altogether.
To help policymakers assess our need for support, we encourage them to visit local libraries. Here is what they will see:
• Heavy use of services. Book, CD and DVD use is booming, with more than 100-million items loaned last year, according to the State Library and Archives of Florida. And the use of electronic databases and reference materials is high, with more than 37-million visits to library Web sites annually.
• Attractive, popular places. Floridians love their libraries and demonstrate this by their more than 72-million visits each year. Floridians increasingly see libraries as "third places" beyond home and work in which to congregate for programs, meetings and recreation.
• Online government services. Government agencies are increasingly providing more services via the Internet as they reduce those provided on-site. As a result, many people are turning to public libraries for computers and staff assistance as their only means of conducting government business.
• Computer, wireless and Internet access. For many Floridians, the public library is the only place with free computer and Internet access. Many others have learned how to use technology for personal and job use through a library's training programs. The State Library and Archives of Florida report that the public used 10,800 library computers more than 17.5-million times for job hunting, e-mail or searches for information between 2005 and 2006. And 1.7-million Floridians received technology training in public libraries during the same period.
• Education for youth. For many parents and caregivers, the public library is the first place they visit to expose children to books and learning activities. Between 2005 and 2006, more than 3-million Florida students participated in summer reading programs that helped ensure they continue to develop reading skills all year. Libraries are also attracting teens as safe places for computer gaming, innovative programming, socializing and studying.
• Remarkable efficiency. Libraries have done about all they can to reduce costs by improving efficiency. And the ability to further stretch their tax dollars is limited. Studies show that Florida's public libraries are remarkably efficient. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, they serve Floridians at an average cost of $26.59 per person annually, 16 percent less than the national average.
In difficult economic times like these, we believe that strong support is important. Libraries are popular, heavily used and essential. On behalf of the Florida library community, we wish strength and wisdom to county and city commissioners and state legislators who are making difficult funding decisions, and we ask them to please continue to support Florida's public libraries.
Charlie Parker is president of the Florida Library Association and executive director of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.