Milne Public Library Director Pat McLeod welcomes advocates from across Berkshire County and legislators to Friday's breakfast.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Library advocates on Friday morning pressed Berkshire County's legislative delegation to help public libraries help Bay Staters cross the "digital divide."
The Library Supporters of Western Massachusetts held its annual Berkshire Legislative Breakfast at the David and Joyce Milne Public Library, and one of the major themes was the need to bring more access to technology into communities.
And libraries, advocates said, are the place to make that happen.
"We need to help level the playing field so all of the people can become that well-informed electorate Thomas Jefferson spoke about 200 years ago," Milne Trustee Rebecca Ohm told the gathering, which included three members of the Berkshire delegation.
"That will happen only if we unity our voices to support this most democratic of institutions."
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Reps. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, each took turns expressing their support for libraries.
"I grew up going to the library, and though I haven't had as much time to go to the library lately, that doesn't mean you don't have my support," Cariddi said.
"I'm certainly in favor of the line items that you passionately speak for. You have my full support."
The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is calling for a 61 percent increase in state aid to public libraries for fiscal 2015. That state aid has declined from a high of nearly $10 million in fiscal 2009 to $6.8 million in the current fiscal year. Library commissioners want to see state aid raised to $11 million.
"The first time I spoke at a Berkshire legislative breakfast, we were bemoaning the loss of our only bookmobile," Commissioner Mary Kronholm said. "The dizzying downward spiral of budgeting had just begun, and it hasn't stopped."
Kronholm's group also has a budget request that seeks to more than double the state expenditure for automated networks, library technology and resource sharing, from $1.9 million this year to $4 million next year. That line item in the budget fell precipitously from a high of $4.4 million in 2001 to its current level.
Technological upgrades are desperately needed to help libraries serve the needs of their patrons, advocates say. Currently, there are just more than 6,000 computers with Internet access in Massachusetts public libraries for a population of 6.6 million.
And e-books, for which demand has grown by 5,000 percent from 2005 to 2012, can only become readily and easily available in local libraries with better infrastructure.
"We need to have user-friendly technology so the average person doesn't need a 45-minute class to download their e-book," said Mary King of the Massachusetts Library System, a state-funded collaborative fostering communication, innovation and cooperation among libraries.
The legislators, who this week received Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed fiscal 2015 budget, said that while they support libraries, the realities in Boston make it difficult to increase particular line items.
The good news is that the governor's proposal includes slight increases both for state aid and library technology of 2 percent each.
"While it is slight, as you look at these numbers, they are starting to track up," Downing said.
The two big challenges to creating a state budget are the rising cost of health care and the retirement of the baby boomers on one side and cuts to federal aid to states on the other, Downing said.
"There are things holding us back in making a lot of investments, but the trajectory is in the right direction," he said. "We're in a better position. It could be much better if we had partners at the federal level who were interested in governing in a thoughtful way."
And like the library advocates who spoke on Friday, a group that included Milne Director Pat McLeod and Adams Free Library Director Deborah Bruneau, Downing recognized the way libraries can help break the cycle of poverty.
"It's important to remember the role they play out here with another challenge we deal with, which is poverty," Downing said.
"There are 14 counties in Massachusetts — five counties of which have a poverty rate higher than the statewide average. Those five counties are the four counties in Western Massachusetts — Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire — and Suffolk County, the county Boston proper is in along with parts of Revere and Chelsea.
"When you think about that and the implications for libraries ... One, the access issue is that much more important, that public access for information and education. And certainly something we talk about all the time: the ability to better oneself, improve oneself and look for other economic opportunities. That public resource of the library is that much more important in our communities because of that challenge."