Mississippi public libraries brace for budget cuts

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Gov. Phil Bryant’s plan to cut state funding for public libraries leaves the institutions facing tough decisions at a time when patronage has reached an all-time high.
Do they lay off staff, reduce hours, close branches or stop purchasing new materials to absorb the proposed 15 percent reduction? And how will they accommodate the millions of residents who rely upon local libraries each year?
“This is a huge deal,” said Sharman B. Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission, which funnels 81 percent of its state allocations to the more than four dozen public library systems from Corinth to Pass Christian.
Those funds, about $9.7 million, primarily pay the salaries of public library employees throughout the state. That frees money from other sources that local libraries then use to purchase technology, materials and other resources patrons need.
If Bryant’s proposal passes, it won’t be the first state revenue cut for the MLC. In the past three years alone, it has lost $3.4 million – about 22 percent – from its previous funding levels.
“The irony in that is, with the economy being what it is, more and more people are turning to libraries,” Smith said. “Use of libraries and use of computers in the libraries for job searches and doing resumes are through the roof.”
An estimated 2.7 million people used Mississippi libraries last year, Smith said.
When state allocations dwindle, libraries rely more heavily on city and county contributions. But those, too, have decreased in recent years.
“We’re already facing a noticeable cut from local funding, so that combined is going to be pretty detrimental to us,” said William McMullin, executive director of the Northeast Regional Library System.
In the meantime, patronage to the system, which serves Alcorn, Prentiss, Tippah and Tishomingo counties, has increased 3 percent over last year, McMullin said.
Patronage also increased at the Dixie Regional Library System, which serves Pontotoc, Calhoun and Chickasaw counties. But revenue shortfalls forced that system’s largest library to reduce hours: Pontotoc shaved 6.5 hours from its weekly schedule to save money, Executive Director Judy McNeece said.
“System wide, our visits are up 3.4 percent since last year and computer use is up 13 percent,” she said.
Computer use represents nearly half of the roughly 270,000 visitors to the Lee-Itawamba Library System last year, according to statistics provided by Director Jeff Tomlinson. It’s sometimes hard to find an open terminal at the main branch, where dozens of patrons do research, write resumes and search for jobs online.
It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the public library business, and Smith believes it’s a key element in the governor’s own vision for the state. That’s why she said she was so surprised to learn about Bryant’s proposed funding cuts.
“Libraries fulfill three of the priorities from his State of the State Address,” Smith said. “Make sure every Mississippian has a job; early childhood literacy – and for many children in Mississippi, their first exposure to books is in a public library – and ensuring that reading is at the forefront of our education plan.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com