The digital age has promised an even greater freedom, openness, and empowerment. Watch the rows of patrons - young and old - sitting before banks of brightly lit computer screens at our Enchilada-red library downtown: With the click of the mouse, they are able to tap into a seemingly infinite realm of news and information, an unbounded access that marks a new era in intellectual exploration.

Haley Gagnon, 10, spends part of a recent Saturday afternoon reading in the San Antonio Public Library's central branch. Haley was catching up on her reading for a school sponsored Battle of the Books competition where schools compete against each other to read the most books in a given period. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Such web research comes at a price, but a cost that until now has been largely borne by the state budget. In the early 1990s, through a program dubbed TexShare, the state first funded electronic databases for major university libraries. Today, with more than $10 million pumped into the project from the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF), monies derived from a modest tax on our telephone bills, visitors to more than 600 public and private Lone Star libraries can plug into an amazing array of resources. TexShare's electronic shelves are filled with encyclopedias, magazines, and newspapers (and their archives), as well as business and medical databases; full-text literary, scientific, and technical journals are there for the browsing. These databases - more than 60 in all - are available in every county regardless of its location, wealth or demography, and are accessible 24/7. In the words of the Texas Library Association, TexShare "brings a world-class research library to any student in colleges and universities and to any person using a public library in the state."

That may not be true much longer. In the aftermath of the state's massive budgetary shortfall, all TIF funding has been suspended. Although TexShare subscriptions have been paid through August 2003, note the significance of that end date: These data-rich resources might be unplugged at precisely the moment when classes in every elementary school, junior high, high school, and university will resume; no timing could do more to cripple the capacity of teachers to teach, and students to learn.

In a state that historically has underfunded poor communities and their school districts, eliminating these valuable resources will hurt those already at a disadvantage, TexShare is a compelling example of how Internet resources can level the educational playing field and alter the social fabric.

If the legislature cuts libraries' funding, the San Antonio Public Library would have to come up with $2.2 million to make up for the deficit. Photo by Mark Greenberg

That TexShare does so through economies of scale is all the more attractive in these tough financial times. It is remarkably cost-effective because it is able to negotiate state-wide licenses with commercial database vendors, driving down prices. Last year, TIF's initial outlay of less than $11 million purchased a staggering $602 million worth of access, representing a combined savings of more than $590 million.

That's pretty serious money, an investment whose significance grows when you realize that no single library or school could afford to ante up for the right to the information that TexShare has made available for free. The San Antonio Public Library, for instance, would have had to shell out more than $2.2 million for the databases and e-books currently online. The tab for San Antonio College and UTSA would have run approximately $1.4 million, and the cost for private institutions such as St. Mary's University, Trinity University, and the University of the Incarnate Word would have been a precise $1,173,954. When you factor these figures in with the estimated 19 million Texans who have access to TexShare-funded materials - well, even those fiscal conservatives who now dominate the state legislature should be able to recognize just how efficient and effective this program has been.

Still, refinancing TexShare will be a tough sell. Confronted with the daunting task of resolving the state's financial crisis, legislators have already diverted $33 million from TIF to shore up other agencies' budgets. If these diversions escalate in the coming months, they will exacerbate the budgetary woes librarians everywhere face, as they scramble for dollars they do not have to provide a scaled-down menu of services their millions of patrons will recognize as well below par. This scenario, says Diane Graves, Trinity's University librarian, "really is a nightmare."

These funds must be restored, for free and unfettered access to knowledge that TexShare provides is critical to the maintenance of a modern democratic society. That, at the very least, is what my mom would tell them.

To contact your state legislator, see the Current's "Yak At Your Rep" website page.

For more information on TexShare, see:

In addition to its funding of TexShare, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund has provided millions of dollars for the purchase of computer technology and network infrastructure. Bexar County has received more than $46 million to support the needs of our colleges and universities, independent school districts, and public libraries. To see how the grants have expanded the range of patron services, click on •

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