Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Libraries in Distress

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Part One of Two

By William Ecenbarger

Many of Pennsylvania's 624 public libraries are named in honor of people--writers (James A. Michener), philanthropists (J. Lewis Crozer) and Founding Fathers (Benjamin Franklin). It is safe to say that in the near future none of them will be named to honor Gov. Edward G. Rendell or any of the 253 current members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Certainly not the Reading Public Library, where librarians had to shovel the snow last winter because maintenance workers had been laid off. Not the Coudersport Public Library in rural Potter County, where librarians are setting mouse traps because the monthly exterminating service was dropped. And probably not the Pennwood branch of the Bucks County Public Library in Langhorne, where librarians are dusting and running vacuums because the cleaning service has been canceled.   

The current state budget makes drastic reductions in money for libraries, which are now reacting by shortening hours, cutting staff, curtailing book-buying, canceling online research databases, delaying needed repairs, raising fines and fees, moth-balling book-mobiles and turning down thermostats. And it is likely to get worse.

Rendell's proposed budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year would cut library payments by another two percent.

Hardest hit are three venerable institutions:

--Free Library of Philadelphia has reduced book-buying by 40 per cent and trimmed neighborhood branches from a six-day week to five days.

-The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has voted to close four branches, merge two others, and cut operating hours by nearly one third.

-The Pennsylvania State Library, the state's largest research library, is now open only three days a week instead of six. 


Less money, more patrons

The irony for libraries is that, largely because of lean economic times, they've never been more popular. For example, the Delaware County Library System, which lost 26 percent of its state funds, has had a 10 percent increase in circulation.

"It's the same everywhere," says Glenn Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association. "People are coming to the local library to work on resumes and look for jobs. Most employers require job applications to be filed online, and people who don't have internet at home must use the library. Before they can even do this, many of them need help learning basic computer skills."

Thumbnail image for library_1205574c.jpgThere's a line at the front door every morning when the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre opens at 8:30. "Most of our patrons want to get online, and most of them are looking for employment," says Sara Hansen, executive director "And they're not just recent graduates. Some of them had been in the workforce for 25 years and never expected to find themselves in this position. They need help in navigating the on-line world."

A major casualty are subscription databases, which offer services ranging from tutoring in foreign languages to automobile repair instructions.

Kathy Arnold-Yerger, executive director, Montgomery County-Norristown, Public Library, said despite a 22 per cent increase in computer use last year, she was forced to eliminate  several popular databases because of a $486,000 drop in state funding. "One of these, Learning Express, is a way to practice for tests, like SAT's and GED's," she said, "and was extremely popular."

The most widely used on-line service is the Pennsylvania Online World of Electronic Resources (POWER) Library, which had been offered free of charge to public and school libraries through a single state subscription. The Legislature slashed the appropriation for this service by 75 per cent-from $11.1 million to $3 million, threatening the entire program.

POWER Library, which provides access to articles from periodicals, journals and newspapers and other reliable reference materials, is the basic source of student research, especially since it can often be accessed from home computers using library card bar code numbers.


Back to the Stone Age

"The Legislature basically returned all libraries to the pre-Internet age," says Barbara Mistick, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Miller said that in 421 or Pennsylvania's 501 school districts, POWER Library is the only research database available to students in school libraries.

"The loss of databases on POWER Library will be devastating," according to Maggie Bokelman, librarian at the Eagle View Middle School in Mechanicsburg. "Librarians have been preaching for years now the importance of teaching our children how to do research using library databases rather than just relying on the internet. Taking these databases away is a huge step backwards."

Most libraries have cut back on the number of books, movies and other materials that they purchase each year. Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, says the 40 per cent cut in purchasing will translate into longer waiting periods for popular titles.

"We used to buy at least one copy for every library of popular items like John Grisham novels and the Harry Potter series," she said. "But no more, and now we have hundreds of people waiting to get a single popular title."

Miller says these reductions will have permanent ramifications. "Once you don't purchase books, it's a hole in your collection. Even if you get the money the next year, chances are you're not going to go back and buy the books."

The Reading Public Library has drastically reduced it hours-from 65 to 45 hours a week at the main library, from 35 to 20 hours a week at its three branches and from 37-1/2 hours to 18 hours for its bookmobile. "Any more than this will endanger what's left of our state aid," says Frank Kasprowicz, the director.

About one in every three public libraries in Pennsylvania are housed in buildings that are at least 60 years old, and many of them need to be replaced or repaired.


Ancient buildings

The Priestley Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, Northumberland County, occupies an 1825 tavern that's cold in the winter-there are no storm windows and minimal insulation-and it has one unheated bathroom. It just removed 7,000 books to the basement to make room for newer titles because shelf space in scarce. Despite these shortcomings, the library had some 43,000 visitors in 2009, an 10 per cent increase over 2008.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh 2.jpgWayne County Public Library in Honesdale is in a 141-year-old structure that began as a private home and then became a personal care home for the elderly. The library took it over about 25 years ago. "It even has an old-fashioned cage elevator that our patrons keep getting stuck on," says Mary Rogers, library director. "For every new book we buy, we have to take one off the shelves and move it to the basement."

Pennsylvania ranks 37th among the states in overall taxpayer support for public libraries, but in terms of local funding it drops to No. 46. In most cases, Pennsylvania municipalities do not view themselves as responsible for library funding

"Public libraries in Pennsylvania are literally orphans," says Miller. "There is no requirement for local government support, and so in too many cases no one takes the lead at the local level. What makes this worse is that there are 3,100 units of government in the state, and it's impossible to exert any meaningful funding rationale from all these townships, cities, boroughs and school boards."

Nowhere is the low priority of libraries demonstrated more dramatically than in Pittsburgh, where in 1895 philanthropist Andrew Carnegie pledged to build and equip a city library as long as the city provided funds to maintain it. City fathers responded with $40,000-and 115 years later the city is still giving the same amount out of a $23.3 million budget.   

Compounding the problem for public libraries is that school libraries at all levels are closing and cutting back. About 40 per cent of all Pennsylvania public schools don't have a library, and many that do don't have a librarian. Nevertheless, there are numerous studies showing that children who attend schools with good libraries do better on standardized tests than those that don't.

Even at the remaining school libraries, materials are out of date. A 2007 study commissioned by the state Education Department found that the average age of books in the school libraries of Bucks and Berks Counties was 23 years. In Luzerne County, the average public school library book dates from 1978. 

The school library problem is especially acute in Philadelphia, where there are only 71 libraries this year to serve 265 schools.


William Ecenbarger is a veteran reporter who specializes in Pennsylvania stories.


Read: Part II - School Libraries: A Disappearing Act


Masthead Photo: Main Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia

Photo 1: Stock Photo

Photo 2: Carnegia Library of Pittsburgh, Main Branch


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