School libraries feel pinch of cuts

Reductions in state budget may jeopardize online databases, statewide catalog of resources

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Yesterday morning, Moon Area High School librarian Debra Majcher held an orientation for freshmen students on how to use the online POWER Library databases for a research project in their English class.

Each year, the orientation to the system that includes 45 databases on a variety of research topics and numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers, is a standard piece of the freshman curriculum.

But as Mrs. Majcher presented yesterday's lesson, she wondered how much longer she would be able to rely on the POWER Library, which had its funding cut by 57.1 percent in the recently approved state budget.

"This system really gave the most to everybody. I'm curious to see what happens with this and who will make the decisions about what cuts are made," Mrs. Majcher said.

In recent months, school librarians had joined their counterparts in public libraries in trying to lobby legislators to restore proposed cuts to library funding.

While the hit to the general state subsidy for libraries was reduced from earlier estimates that some had put as high as 50 percent to the final total reduction of 20.1 percent, librarians were not able to protect POWER from severe cuts.

Nor were they able to save any funding for the Access Pennsylvania online catalog of all materials at some 3,000 libraries across the state and its accompanying "Ask Here PA" system, which connects users to a reference librarian 24 hours a day.

Mrs. Majcher said early yesterday one of the high school Spanish teachers used the Ask Here PA service to find information to supplement his classroom materials.

POWER Library, which stands for Pennsylvania Online World of Electronic Resources, is a creation of the Office of Commonwealth Libraries and the state Department of Education. Its funding was reduced from $7 million to $3 million, and some of those funds were used for the interlibrary loan service. Access Pennsylvania had its $3.5 million completely eliminated.

Without the electronic library catalog, library users will not be able to view the materials held by other libraries, and with the reduction in funding for POWER Library, it's likely that more than half of the databases will have to be eliminated, said Beth Mellor, marketing coordinator for the Allegheny County Library Association.

Both services are currently available at public and school libraries, and librarians say it's common for students to start research for projects during the school day using the POWER Library and continue it after hours either at their local library or by using their library card to access it from personal computers.

"It's so troubling when the state keeps saying we are behind in education and then something like this is taken away from school- children and then after school as well in their public libraries," Mrs. Mellor said.

School librarians predict that as databases are eliminated from POWER Library, the wealthier districts likely will spend their own funds to replace some or all of the databases, but others in less-wealthy communities will have to go without.

Until now, school districts paid about $180 a year to subscribe to POWER, but it would cost a school district $60,000 to $80,000 to purchase all of the databases it includes, librarians said.

"These resources leveled the playing field for all students whether they are in a poor district or a wealthy district. They make resources available to everyone," said Mary Grace Kelly, middle and high school librarian in the Keystone Oaks School District.

Mrs. Majcher said her library currently purchases a few databases beyond those included in POWER and those databases cost several thousand dollars each annually.

She isn't certain how many more her district would be able to afford if significant cuts are made to the POWER collection. She said some cuts to the system already have been made since the beginning of the school year as some databases were not renewed as their subscriptions expired.

Among them was a professional development collection used by younger teachers who are working on advanced degrees and the History Reference Center, which was "a key resource for history classes," she said. Both stopped Sept. 30.

"We lost something huge in the History Reference Center," said Kathleen Batykefer, middle school teacher librarian in the Pine-Richland School District. The database was heavily used by students in the pre-Advanced Placement courses, she said.

Mrs. Batykefer hopes the district will be able to replace some of the databases that will be lost from POWER Library.

Librarians and teachers have come to depend on the POWER system for student research because it provides research-based, factual material in such categories as art and music, literature, general reference, health and science, business, biographies, newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias.

"No matter what a student is looking for, he can come in here and use this and find more than any books will cover and it's all current, some of it is updated daily," said Brigetta Hannah, library media specialist at Baldwin High School.

If more than half of those databases are lost due to the budget cuts, students will be left to conduct research on the Internet and that will require lessons on what is legitimate material.

"Anybody can put anything out there. It's easy to create your own Web site. We want to make sure our students are getting reliable, valid, unbiased information, which you can't guarantee when you Google. These databases provide us with that," said Dawn Caruso, library information specialist at Gateway High School.

Elimination of the Access Pennsylvania electronic library catalog means the dissolution of what is the first and largest state catalog to include the holdings of all types of libraries. It was started in 1985 and includes materials from more than 3,000 libraries across the state.

Along with the catalog was a service that allowed library patrons to borrow materials from any library in the state and have them shipped to their school or community library.

Last year, 35 requests were made to have books either shipped to or from the Gateway High School library, Ms. Caruso said.

It's uncertain now how that service would continue without the online catalog and without funds to pay for the shipping.

Mrs. Majcher said she has heard discussions about using some of the funds allotted for the POWER Library to continue the Access Pennsylvania services. But that likely would mean even further cuts to the research databases.

Mrs. Batykefer made a biblical reference to how library officials will have to make do with the funds that have been appropriated this year.

"We have the loaves and the fishes and now we are waiting for a miracle," she said.

With the cuts to the online databases, Mrs. Majcher sees the possibility of libraries returning to the bound copies of The Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature for student research.

The problem with that, however, will be that most libraries don't keep hard copies of the journals and periodicals that the guide will lead students to.

"I no longer keep a back room full of magazine articles because they can go onto POWER Library and find magazine articles from through the years," said Susan Reitz, middle and high school librarian in the South Allegheny School District.

"The kids will just be stuck."


Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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