Study Shows New Funding Sources Crucial to Technology Services: LSTA, the E-Rate, and Other Programs Have Sparked Experimentation and Innovation. (Research)

Article excerpt

In recent years public libraries have gained a number of new funding sources that they have used to enhance their technology infrastructure, telecommunications services, and network-based services and resources. In combination, these sources--which include the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA); the e-rate; other federal, state, and local programs; and awards from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation--have enabled libraries to engage in significant experimentation and innovation in the services they provide.

Indeed, public librarians successfully leveraged these external funds to:

* offer new network-based programs and services;

* obtain additional resources and support for their libraries;

* better integrate themselves into the local community's information infrastructure; and

* increase the visibility and credibility of the public library as "the information place" in their community.

Although these external funds (which can also include state telecommunications funds, support from industry or nonprofit foundations, partnerships, and in-kind services) often comprise only 1-3% of the library's budget, they have enabled public libraries to build upon their existing infrastructure in ways that would otherwise not have been possible.

These new funding sources prompted the authors to conduct a study between February 2001 and January 2002 to assist the public library community, state and federal policymakers, and others interested in the future of public libraries to assess just how crucial these funding sources have become, and how they can best be utilized in the future. The study used a multiple-method, iterative data-collection strategy that included case studies, focus groups, site visits, interviews, and surveys. Methodology and detailed findings are available in the final report (see www.ii.fsu.edu).

Findings and issues

The findings from the study suggest a number of ways to keep the momentum going on what has been a promising start to the introduction of a new digital age in U.S. public libraries and the communities that they serve:

LSTA is a model federal program for funding libraries. Participants indicated that LSTA funding, guided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and managed at the state level by state libraries, works well overall. Improvements suggested for LSTA include the making of funds for construction available and ensuring adequate program funding, but respondents suggested only minor changes for the overall program.

E-rate funding is essential to local operations, but needs fine-tuning. Most library managers agreed that the e-rate initiative was designed to assist with crucial operating expenses--Internet and telecommunications charges, wiring, and basic network equipment. But the program's procedures became a nightmare when it came to the overly "complicated," "cumbersome," and "unending" application process, which failed to recognize the public library's unique mission in its community, ignored libraries' frequent lack of experience with grants and expertise with information technology, and had a biased approach toward public schools. Suggested improvements to the e-rate program included:

* simplify the application process;

* adjust administrative staffing, practice, and regulation that presently favors public schools: for example, allow libraries to have choices similar to schools in how to aggregate their request for e-rate funding and how they pick their vendors so that libraries can compete more effectively for internal connection discounts;

* get clear and accurate information to the library community;

* fund support for libraries that do not have staff time or technical expertise to make the application process work for them; and

* distinguish public schools from public libraries.

Leverage external support to provide internet service. …