Hulen Bivins on Mississippi libraries

Hulen Bivins is executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission. Bivins recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the state of Mississippi’s libraries. Bivins holds degrees from Lipscomb University, the University of Tennessee and Faulkner University. Previously, he was assistant director for the state library in Alabama, and director of the state libraries in North Dakota and South Carolina.


What is the overall state of libraries in Mississippi right now?

“Our library directors, support staff, our facilities, our collections, the ability to do everything we’d like to do – all of that has been hampered over the course of the years by state dollars that have not increased or by remaining level, which has caused a decrease in what we do based on inflation.

“I’ll give you an example. We have a collection of databases that’s called the Magnolia Collection. These databases are paid for with state dollars and we have a budget line of $1 million to pay for subscriptions that are in the collection. Anybody that goes to any public library can get an access number and all they have to do is plug in a code (to access it). The database has been level funded by the state for several years. What has happened is that we have had to reconsider the value of some of the collection’s databases. Some have had to be dropped.”


What are some of the databases you no longer have in the collection?

“Learning Express, it has practice tests on it. It will help you practice for the SAT, law school admissions test, postal service employment exam – all kinds of practice exams that will help you be more comfortable when taking the actual tests.”


How many libraries are there in Mississippi?

“We have 52 systems. The number of total libraries are well over 200. We look at systems, rather than branches, because that’s how we do our funding.”


How does funding from the library commission go to branches?

“We have the personnel incentive grant program, which was created and approved by the (Mississippi) legislature in 1971, long before I arrived. Under that program, the state allocates dollars that will support public library services, especially in regard to helping libraries hire librarians with master’s degrees and who are trained in best practices. That money, without it, would result in half the state not being able to afford qualified librarians.”


What is the library commission’s annual budget? And of that, how much goes out to the systems?

“Looking at level funding, which would include state, federal and any other special funds we might receive, we would be at $12,291,471 (next year). The total budget we request and receive from the legislature, approximately 21 percent is used at the commission. The remaining 79 percent goes out to the public libraries.”


Where do you see libraries in five years, 10 years?

“I’m somewhat prejudiced, having been in this business 46 years. I see it becoming more and more important at the local level, probably transcending so many other services that we see as more essential today. Our public libraries are used by millennials more than any other group of our citizenry. The Baby Boomers were more in tune to the brick and mortar-type of library and thought of the services as being what you found within the buildings. Millennials and post-millennials see the library as a conduit of information and knowledge. They don’t see it as a building, per se.”


Do you think more brick and mortar libraries will be going away?

“They’re going to be re-tooled. They’ll have more (electronic) abilities. Let’s look at where we are right now. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to apply for a job with the (certain cities). You’d fill out an application, mail it and it would be processed by the employment services of the city. Now, you must do the form online, because they don’t accept the printed version. In state employment, you would also do the application electronically.

“There are a lot of people who still do not have their own home computer. A lot of people in our state, unfortunately, live in areas that have low broadband width and are unable to upload employment documents. Those people have to go to the library still. The change in the last 15 years has been drastic. We anticipate change in the next 15 years will be just as drastic.”


What is the commission doing to plan for the future?

“We have to be good stewards of the money we receive. We have to show the need for more monies and explain our justifications. Once we get the money, we have to put it to the best use. We need to accommodate much of the needs of the citizenry, if not all of the needs, that we possibly can.”

In Jackson, you see so many library buildings that are falling apart. Tisdale and Welty come to mind. Are other systems in the state facing similar brick and mortar issues?

“Yes; so many of our public library buildings were built in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. That was when the federal government still provided some dollars for library construction, renovation and repair. After that time, they ceased to do that. Our buildings are now 50-plus years old and are in need of attention.

“Many of the buildings that were designed, especially in the 1960s and 70s, came with flat roofs, and flat roofs leak. So many times. They would sit the air conditioning machinery on top of the roof. The air conditioning does not move. While the rest of the roof expands and contracts due to environmental conditions, the part under the air conditioning doesn’t, causing breaks. Those breaks cause water to seep into the membrane and gradually deteriorate it. We have a need to repair things like that. We have needs for heating and air conditioning to be more energy-compliant. We have very few libraries that have lighting that is energy-compliant.”


You recently asked for additional funds from the legislature. Will any of those funds go to structural issues?

“What we requested would be basic seed money that would help us start a grant program, where the local entity would be required to put forth a match to state dollars to correct these problems. The most acute problems are always going to be where there is mold and mildew – they cause health problems and problems for any collections of paper materials. The need (for libraries across the state) far exceeds several million-dollars, so (building issues) won’t be cured as a state project, nor should they be. Localities should participate in all of these improvements and renovations.”


How much more money is the commission asking for in the next fiscal year?

“Personnel incentive grant money is $330,000. For the Magnolia database, we asked for an increase of $300,000. The renovation and repair (line) in our budget submission was $350,000, again that being partial seed money. Then, we asked for a one-time (allocation of $355,000 to replace the lost federal funds we’re looking at this year.”


Lost federal funds?

“The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has a program called ‘Grants to the States.’ Under that program, monies are allocated on an annual basis for the support of libraries and museums. Each state receives a minimum amount of $800,000. Whatever else is provided by the U.S. Congress is then (awarded) the state on a per-capita basis. Each year, the amount that goes to each state is re-calculated. One of the ways (the institute) does that is by looking at the ‘maintenance of effort’ of each state. Under the maintenance of effort, IMLS looks at a three-year period and takes the average (funding for those years) and asks whether you maintained the average or not. For this year’s allocation, the feds are looking at the state budgets of 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2016, the state did not have the income anticipated and there were budget cuts throughout the year. The net was a 19 percent budget cut in support of libraries.”


How much will the state lose in library funding?

“Our allotment will be diminished by $355,000. We’ve asked for an additional allotment from the state to continue the programs affected by this loss. The primary one is a competitive grant for library systems, where they can recommend innovative programs (to us) and get money to implement those programs.”


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