State cuts hurt libraries
By Jamie Inferrera
Harold Shill is extremely concerned with the future of education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Shill, who served as library director at Penn State Harrisburg from 1991-2005, knows how vital libraries are for students and communities.
“If libraries become less accessible because of funding cuts, it discourages people from reading,” Shill said.
With a 20 percent reduction in state library funding for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, closings and cuts to public libraries across the commonwealth are imminent. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is no exception. Its state funding has been cut by $1.51 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Public library usage tends to increase during a recession,” Shill said.
Due to the state budget cuts, the board of trustees for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh voted to close its Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, Beechview and West End branches by February 1, 2010. The Knoxville and Carrick branches are also scheduled to merge. Two local lawmakers who voted in favor of the state budget also had to face the vote to close libraries.
State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forrest Hills, and state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, both sit on the board of trustees for the library. Both Sen. Costa and Rep. Frankel were in Harrisburg when the trustees met to vote on the closing of libraries. Rep. Frankel sent a letter in support of the libraries, however, no proxy votes could be cast.
The voting record for the closing of the four Carnegie Library branches is not public information, according to Suzanne Thinnes, communications manager for the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. However, a majority vote is required to close libraries.
“As bad as it was, the ending budget cuts to library funding were far less than in previous proposals,” Frankel said. “This appeared to be the most reasonable result, but regrettable none the less.”
Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the legislators were focusing on the big picture when trying to pass the state budget to meet the 100 day deadline.
“Not that the legislators wanted to reduce funding for libraries, but it had to be a compromise for all parties involved,” Shuster said. “Legislators will try to generate special funding from the city and county levels to help with the cuts.”
Frankel said there are early phases of state legislation that could allow revenue from table games to be used as additional funding for libraries in the commonwealth. The percentage of revenue could range from 1 percent to 2 percent and he hopes that some, if not all, of the proposed revenue would go towards public library funding.
Even though a state budget has been passed, constituents and library advocates are still lobbying strong for more funding.
“There is a great deal of vigilance of people who are consumers of libraries,” Frankel said. “Libraries are an anchor of neighborhoods.”
The Allegheny Country Library Association (ACLA) has been urging its constituents to contact state legislators since the beginning of the budget crisis.
“We created a popup message for libraries’ Web sites,” Beth Mellor, marketing and member services coordinator for ACLA said. “The message was ‘Save the Libraries’ and we provided template letters for contacting legislators.”
Shill said he has been receiving a constant stream of E-mails from the Pennsylvania Library Association about state funding updates and cuts. He accredits the organization’s director, Glenn Miller, for effectively keeping the constituents informed during every step of the process.
“The Pennsylvania Library Association described what happened at every stage and then gave actions people could take,” Shill said. “It was very motivational and mobilizing.”
While Pennsylvania’s public libraries faced a significant funding cut, several other states are faced with a more difficult challenge. According to the American Library Association, Florida is facing a 23.4 percent decrease in funding and South Carolina ranks highest with a 30 percent cut in funding.
“Books are the best source for the sustained treatment of a topic,” Shill said. “If we have major cutbacks in funding, we discourage people, especially students, in the long term.”