Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Two steps forward and a giant step back

When I first became a NH librarian in 1977, the relationship between local public libraries and the NH State Library was very different from what it is today. Back then, NHSL had satellite offices from which bookmobiles plied the back roads visiting small libraries which could supplement their collections from the books onboard until the bookmobiles' next round. Each office had a consultant you could call if you needed advice. There were other consultants in Concord, including a publicity person. But there were no computers, no eReaders, no electronic reference tools (aka databases) and certainly no internet.

However, there was a statewide library card which each library director could issue to a borrower in good standing. It was good at any NH library. There was very little funding to back it up, though. I was working in Peterborough back then, and PTL was the biggest net lender on the statewide card, with heavy usage from small towns like Hancock, Greenfield, Dublin, and Bennington. We gave a lot of service for little compensation. By 1980, the law authorizing the statewide card was repealed at the request of the library community, which could no longer justify providing something for nothing.

Over time, the bookmobiles came off the road, the satellite offices closed, positions were eliminated, and all NHSL operations were centralized in Concord, except for a small office in Twin Mountain to support the libraries north of the notches. Even that is gone now. To facilitate material sharing among NH libraries, a delivery service was started with four vans and drivers covering the state on a regular schedule. In a wise move, any monies dispensed to individual libraries were withheld in favor of spending it on a bigger project to benefit all NH libraries.

So NHSL began purchasing database products, and all libraries could use them equally, regardless of size or budget. Over time, the offerings expanded to include EBSCOHost (an online periodical database), Biography Resource Center (now Biographies in Context), and Newsbank (an index to the Union Leader, NH Sunday News, and The Telegraph), as well as Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest for genealogical research. And now we even have downloadable audiobooks and ebooks through the NH Downloadable Book Consortium. NHSL pays for the infrastructure with federal funds from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and the almost 200 member libraries pool money for content.

Fast forward 35 years. Most of NHSL's consultants are gone except for a children's services coordinator and the wonderful wizard who oversees the databases and downloadable books. We're down to 3 vans, with strict weight limits, so that most of the materials that our local consortium shares are transported weekly by a special courier paid for by the consortium. Individual libraries must now buy Ancestry, Heritage Quest, and Biographies in Context from their local budgets, if they can afford them. Most can't. Now NHSL is dropping Newsbank, which is used heavily in Merrimack. Somehow, we will have to find money for this, too, while our own budget shrinks. NHSL is committed to retaining EBSCOhost and downloadables. None of the libraries could offer these alone.

[Sigh] So now I am semi-retired, juggling technology, collection management, reference questions, and adult programming on a half-time schedule. Merrimack has had it's own budget woes, so it's painful when NHSL has to discontinue services we depend on. We are so lucky to be part of the GMILCS consortium! We can pool money and expertise to float all 12 members' boats. Still, it's discouraging to go backward when we've come so far. It's hard to stretch that dollar until the eagle grins, but we need to keep up. Libraries have changed, and Merrimack PL is no exception. Stop by and see why.


Anonymous said...

Well written! Is the State Library using LSTA money properly? I've seen their reports to IMLS and there are some questionable things.

Ellen Knowlton said...

I have not seen the report to IMLS, so can't comment on specifics. If there were "questionable things," I would think IMLS would ask about them. (Personally, I can't image Michael York using the money for other than its intended purpose.) I can say, from experience, when the state library began using federal money for projects that would float all the public library boats, the gains to those local libraries became huge. Of, course, NHSL has been doing that for a long time. Cuts in both federal and state funding are responsible for the loss or reduction in some NHSL services to libraries. I have marveled for years at how much NHSL helps us with far less money than many other state libraries have.

Anonymous said...

There are certain staff positions at NHSL that are being at least partially funded with LSTA money that is inappropriate in my view. LSTA money for staff in very specific instances is ok but the extent to which that is happening at NHSL is wrong. I'm not saying Michael York is breaking any law but he is looking out for his staff before the public libraries of this State.

Ellen Knowlton said...

If staff members are involved in providing the services that LSTA funding permits and supports, it would seem to me that the staff cost of providing that service would appear in the budget for that service. Michael York works hard to protect the programs that benefit NH library users so he'll naturally want to keep the staff that deliver those programs. However, I concede that you appear to be privy to information that I, in my position here at MPL, haven't seen. If you feel that federal funds are being misappropriated, I suggest you take your concerns to someone who has authority over such matters and can investigate your concerns.