California school boards face a tough choice: whether to buy books that foster love of reading or stock up on technology-based research tools, such as the internet and CD-ROM encyclopedias. The dilemma comes on the heels of the announcement that the state would budget $158.5 million to resuscitate its school libraries.

Two decades of budget neglect had drained the state’s school libraries to the point where they ranked worst in the nation.

“We really have been a laughing stock,” said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction. “We’ve wound up on front-page articles in national newspapers. We’re 50th in school library collections, 50th in the number of librarians, and we have the oldest nonfiction books.”

Eastin said her goal is to restore books and she unsuccessfully proposed a 20-percent spending cap on technology in the library legislation sponsored by Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-Chula Vista.

The cap was dropped from the bill. Instead, school boards must approve plans for spending the money before it is released.

“When you’ve been down as far as we’ve been as long as we’ve been, I think it’s a legitimate question for a principal to ask, ‘Why do we need a library when we have an internet connection?”‘ said Barbara Jeffus, a school library consultant with the state Department of Education.

Book fans note that some school districts already will get $100 million worth of help in purchasing computers and related technology under the state’s four-year Digital High School Initiative.

But George Araya, director of technology for the Desert Sands Unified School District in eastern Riverside County, represents the opposing view. “For me, the library is a technology research center,” Araya said.