Secretary of State pushing for more money to support broadband in libraries

Sunday , February 11, 2018 - 1:56 PM

Kathryn Hardison

JEFFERSON CITY — In a world that has become electronically driven, public libraries still have an advocate at the Missouri Capitol.

But for Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, it’s not about keeping the libraries stuck in the pre-digital age — it’s about bringing them up to date as a resource for Missourians.

At a state budget hearing last week, Ashcroft spoke with committee members about his office’s appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July. One concern Ashcroft had was increasing the funds for a program that puts broadband and other technological services into public libraries across the state.

The Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program, or REAL, supports the cost for internet access, technical support, network security, training and other services to any tax-supported public library. The REAL Program is managed by the Missouri Research and Education Network, or MOREnet, a nonprofit technology provider.

In Gov. Eric Greitens’ budget proposal, he recommended $2 million for the program, which is the amount the office received last year. Ashcroft said he wants the program to be appropriated an additional $1.1 million to get the funding back to the level it was in fiscal year 2015.

“This is the most cost-effective way, probably, to get broadband to the people of the state,” Ashcroft said. “This is how people want to educate themselves — we have students in libraries who take courses online, proctor tests online, apply for jobs and government assistance online.”

Broadband has become a vital infrastructure for businesses, agriculture, education and everyday lives. In rural areas of Missouri, those who do not have access to broadband, or have unreliable broadband, rely on public libraries or public hot spots to be able to use the internet.

“We talk about broadband access and how important that is,” Ashcroft said at another hearing last week. “This is such a cost-effective way to realize the potential, to actualize the potential, of the people of the state of Missouri.”

Ashcroft said about 90 percent of Missourians have access to broadband in their local libraries because of programs like REAL.

Since 2010, state funding for the REAL Program has decreased by 36 percent, according to Maura Browning, director of communications for the Secretary of State.

“When we cut REAL funding — which has been done year, after year, after year — our libraries have to get rid of that broadband service,” Ashcroft said. “They don’t have the tech support, they don’t have the virus protection for their computer system.”

In 2014, the program received just more than $3.1 million from the state, but the funding was dropped to $2 million, according to Browning. The secretary’s office had to reduce the number of statewide databases offered while working to keep membership and connectivity costs stable for public libraries, she said.

“It would be difficult to go below $2 million,” Browning said in an email. “Many public libraries may have to reduce or eliminate REAL Program participation if their subsidies were lost.”

The funding does not go specifically to the public libraries but is used to manage the REAL Program. Funds go toward membership services, network services, training and support services for the libraries and online resources for MOREnet members.

There are 116 public library systems in Missouri that benefit from the REAL Program, including the Daniel Boone Regional Library, which serves Boone and Callaway counties.

Margaret Conroy, executive director of the Daniel Boone Regional Library, was previously the Missouri state librarian and a member of the MOREnet council.

Conroy said that while there are more broadband options for people in Columbia, Callaway County residents especially benefit from the REAL Program’s services with Daniel Boone Regional Library.

“We know our patrons who don’t have reliable (broadband) access at home do come into our libraries to get that,” Conroy said.

While broadband access is a key component of what the REAL Program has to offer, Conroy said the Daniel Boone Regional Library benefits from much more than that. Conroy said the library is able to process e-mail and website services, obtain network security not offered through commercial internet providers, and pay for online databases, like HeritageQuest and EBSCOhost.

Without the REAL funding, the library “would have to make a hard choice,” Conroy said. “Especially with the periodical services, we would have to use local funds to pay for them, which means we would have to cut other funds to make that happen.”

Conroy said public libraries rely on the funding, and she hopes the legislature continues to provide it.

“I realize there’s a limited pot,” Ashcroft said to committee members last week. “But it seems to me an awful lot of people are talking about broadband, an awful lot of people could agree we need better jobs, better opportunities for people to learn. This is it.”

KOMU reporter Stephanie Sandoval contributed to this report.

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