Tennessee librarians lobby to save electronic library

By Rozella Hardin


   If you can surf the Internet or find your way to a Tennessee public library, you're only a few keystrokes away from an $11,000 information windfall known as the Tennessee Electronic Library.
   For no charge, you can dig into virtual mountains of reference materials -- magazines, almanacs, encyclopedias, academic journals, directories -- organized by a Michigan-based database publisher.
   Since October 1, 1999, the electronic library has provided access to nearly 4.7 million documents on topics ranging from business to literature to current events to health and wellness, according to the Tennessee State Archives and Library, which oversees the online service.
   Librarians across the state report using it for purposes as serious as aiding in cancer research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and as frivolous as answering an office trivia quiz about why a Fig Newton is no named.
   When the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library received the TEL, Library Director Joyce White said, "The technology revolution is changing things. This (TEL) plays a positive role in our ability to expand access to information.
   "We have a number of students who use it for research papers. It is more authoritative and factual than general information gleaned from the Internet," White reasoned.
   Created by state law, the Tennessee Electronic Library is designed to help level the playing field for the state's libraries. It has given libraries in schools, suburbs, big cities, small towns and rural areas access to databases that were previously available only at a relative few of the better-funded or more centrally located facilities.
   In Carter County, there are 11 registered sites, they being the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, Cloudland High School, Elizabethton High School, Hampton High School, Happy Valley High School, Happy Valley Middle School, Harold McCormick School, T.A. Dugger Junior High School, Unaka High School, and the P.H. Welsheimer Library at Milligan College.
   While free access has been a boon to libraries serving communities large and small, librarians fear for the service's future because of chronic problems with the state budget.
   The state contributed $300,000 in 1999 to help start the electronic library but has declined to put more state funding in the program. Last year the state failed to provide any state funding for the TEL.
   To date, the state library has kept TEL going with federal funding, but officials aren't sure how much longer that will continue.
   Jack Stacy, TEL coordinator, said at his urging and with his blessing, librarians from across the state are mounting a lobbying campaign to push for state funding for TEL. School libraries are encouraged to write letters, and TEL is expected to be the main thrust of Library Legislative Day at the state Capitol on Jan 29, said Stacy.
   "It was the libraries that persuaded the General Assembly to enact the Tennessee Electronics Bill in 1999," Stacy said. "Before that, libraries kind of fended for themselves, and they weren't getting the best deal that way. The whole idea behind this was equity. It doesn't matter if you're in a poor, rural area of the state. You should have the same access to information as the libraries in Memphis or Nashville," said Stacy.
   He noted that small libraries have sometimes little or nothing for budgets. "Many of the libraries got their first Internet-ready computers when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave out grants for computers. And most never offered database access before the electronic library came along," Stacy said.
   The Elizabethton library was one of the recipients of computers given by the Gates Foundation, which greatly enhanced its technology program. "We consider ourselves to be pretty good for a library in a town the size of Elizabethton, but when a database subscription costs $1,000 to $1,500 a year, it takes a pretty big bite," said White, who noted that the library staff is well acquainted with TEL and is available to help patrons use it. Earlier this year, grant money was available to train librarians in the use of the program, especially those in this area. The grant was written by the Unicoi County Library Director and administered by the Johnson City Public Library.
   One of the points library lobbyists are expected to make is the cost-effectiveness of the Tennessee Electronic Library. The state library has paid Gale Group $750,000 a year during the first three years of TEL.
   Stacy, the state library's bibliography services coordinator, said the Tennessee Electronic Library's databases would probably cost an individual user about $11,000 a year in subscription fees, if purchased directly from the Gale Group of Farmington Hills, Mich.
   If the 1,617 libraries participating in TEL, including 1,403 school libraries, bought individual subscriptions to the databases, the fees would total $39 million.
   It's unclear what will happen to TEL if the Legislature doesn't approve state money next year. Not only would patrons of the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library feel the bite, but so would schools in the area, who subscribe to the TEL.
   Stacy said the state library has paid database subscription fees largely from the state's annual grant of about $2 million in federal funds under the Library Services and Technology Act.
   Federal money is typically reserved for startup or demonstration programs and activities such as buying new computers for libraries, Stacy said. TEL is getting past the stage where it can be considered a startup program.
   Stacy said while most states in the Southeast offer some form of electronic library, "We're the only state funding our electronic database completely with federal funds."
   Stacy wasn't sure whether TEL would continue in its current form or undergo downsizing if it should fail to get state support. "That I can't really tell you. At this point, library patrons should lobby their legislator for funding for the TEL," he said.