Whispers in the stacks: Allegheny County library systems face uneven funding and pressure to change
Though libraries are wordy places, they occasionally send blunt messages.
“My car has been hit by a piece of the building that fell off,” recounted Vicki Vargo, executive director of the sprawling and creaky Braddock Carnegie Library. “If it had been a split second sooner, it would’ve hit my head.”
Braddock’s library building is closed for renovation, and these days Vargo’s staff works in a cramped office in a storefront on Braddock Avenue, as she tries to nail down the remaining $7 million toward the $15 million construction cost. Even that just begins to describe the challenges facing the community centerpiece.
And that’s just one library.
The county’s 45 suburban libraries and the larger Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system have wide ranges of financial resources, physical spaces, staffing, and programming and services. Those disparities are fueled by the region’s fragmentation as well as a funding formula that drives some countywide sales tax revenues to libraries that have higher circulation and more local funding.
Though suburban library officials have been striving in recent years to make funding more equitable and push more dollars to poorer communities, the system still fails to even the playing field between some of those areas and wealthier neighbors.
Whispered about for years in the region’s Byzantine and fragmented library world, concerns about funding inequities are no longer being shushed down. Gathered around the proverbial table are local library leaders and major funders including the Allegheny Regional Asset District [RAD] and the Office of Commonwealth Libraries. So far, the focus is on increased cooperation between libraries.
“We've been really nudging. Pushing. Cajoling. And threatening” in an effort to get libraries to share their accounting, human resources and payroll specialists, said Dan Griffin, a longtime member of the RAD board of directors, which distributes revenue from the 1% county sales tax. Such sharing, he said, could help to level the financial playing field.
That’s easier said than done in a county with large and small libraries — some owned by municipalities but most run as independent nonprofit organizations — where there’s no one “average” library.
A push for equitable library services “is absolutely necessary,” said Sue Banks, the state’s deputy secretary for libraries and state librarian. “It is very difficult to watch from this point of view while small libraries are left to languish.”
Braddock: Big needs, modest funding
The medieval-looking fortress built in 1888 just blocks from the Edgar Thomson Works was the first of many U.S. libraries built by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
With a pottery studio, screen-printing shop, gymnasium, tool and puppet rentals, and spaces for adults and kids, the Braddock Carnegie Library is more than a collection of books and computer terminals. But it’s no longer what it was in its heyday, when it offered the public a swimming pool and a music hall. And it lacks consistent heating, air conditioning and elevators.
Vargo said she hears patrons say things like, “I just had my hip replaced. How do I get up the stairs?”
She plans to give them an elevator and effective climate control, revive the performance hall, convert the old pool into a lounge area, add event spaces … and she has half of the money needed to do it.
The library serves high-poverty communities including Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek, where resources are tight. Government, though, provides much less than half of the library’s budget.
This year, Braddock Carnegie Library is slated to get $147,000 from RAD. That number comes from a formula crafted by the Allegheny County Library Association [ACLA], an umbrella group that includes all 46 libraries and distributes the RAD money to all except the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh [CLP].
Poverty rates determine 10% of the funding — up from just 5% in 2020. That change came after RAD asked ACLA, in 2019, to reexamine the formula to better address the needs of distressed communities.
Homestead: Entertaining and training
The change in the formula “definitely helped us,” said Carol Shrieve, who runs the Carnegie of Homestead, another combination library, music hall and gym in a high-poverty area.
Built in 1898, it benefits from concert and liquor sale revenue but still struggles to pay competitive wages. Shrieve said the RAD increase helped her to boost wages and expand programs.
The new formula cost some libraries funding. Northland Public Library, for instance, gets $41,187 less from RAD than it did in 2020, down to $570,761. Mount Lebanon is down by $34,356, to $379,734.
The Penn Hills Library gets $5,811 less from RAD this year than it did in 2020. On a per-capita basis, it has the second-lowest RAD allocation, with Plum the lowest.
Tina Zins, executive director of the Penn Hills Public Library, called the funding dip “concerning.” She added, though, that it would be hard “to figure out a formula that is fair and equitable across the board,” she noted.
Braddock’s library gets 18% more in RAD money than it did two years ago. On a per-capita basis, though, it still gets less in RAD money than do libraries in wealthier Upper St. Clair, Mount Lebanon, Pleasant Hills and Sewickley (though also less than libraries in Clairton and Wilkinsburg).
Braddock Library Director Rachel Brehm doesn’t envy her suburban peers but does note the chasm between the smaller libraries and the largest.
“The winner is Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, like hands down,” she said. “There’s no real comparison.”
Pittsburgh: Better-funded and looking to share
RAD is paying the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh a total of more than $26.3 million this year. RAD is separately granting nearly $7.1 million to ACLA, of which nearly $6.6 million is distributed to those libraries, with the rest going toward the Bookmobile and shared administrative and accounting services.
RAD's payment to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh includes four parts:
- $21.7 million for the library's general operations
- $3.4 million for operation of the eiNetwork, a computer network shared by all of the libraries in the county
- $249,000 toward other electronic resources shared with the other libraries
- $1 million to cover debt payments on money borrowed to renovate libraries in the city.
The $21.7 million toward library operations grew from the days before RAD’s 1995 launch, when the city and county both supported the system to the tune of more than $11 million a year, according to Karlyn Voss, CLP’s director of external and governmental relations. RAD’s annual payment to the system started at around $12 million and increased by around 3% most years.
The bigger allocation also reflects CLP’s role as a countywide and statewide resource, Voss noted.
The Pittsburgh library’s funding dominance creates staffing challenges for other libraries. Shrieve said CLP can pay thousands more per year than most of its suburban peers, and as a result, “A lot of the independent libraries are essentially becoming stepping stones for employees.”
Recognizing the challenges faced by smaller libraries, CLP has rolled out a series of pilot programs to share its expertise.
CLP is handling, for various suburban libraries, some purchasing, cataloging and distribution of materials; cataloging of books; human resources consulting, fundraising and capital project planning.
It also wants to assist its smaller cousins with website design.
"We've had some [libraries] opt in," noted Lou Testoni, a CLP trustee and interim president of the board. "We have probably not had enough to opt in yet, but they are still pilots. They're still growing. We figure that eventually the value of those services will be recognized, and they'll jump in and take advantage of it."
CLP highlighted its eagerness to share in the April announcement of its incoming president and director, Andrew Medlar, who starts May 31.
Griffin said RAD would likely be willing to pay to encourage smaller libraries to use CLP’s services. He said that might help overcome the concerns of smaller libraries that “think somehow the big bad wolf in Oakland is going to gobble them up.”
Harrisburg: Flat allocations to lobbying libraries
CLP is, in fact, hungry — for more help from the state.
“We are facing deficits within the next two to three years,” said Testoni. “The costs keep [continuing] up, and the funding has been more or less flat.”
The state is providing less operating help for libraries this year ($60.5 million) than it did 14 years ago ($75.7 million). Compare that to Ohio, where the state puts more than $400 million a year into libraries.
"Arguably, [Ohio's are] the best libraries in the country because of that," said Banks, who worked in Ohio libraries and then at CLP before becoming Pennsylvania's state librarian.
By contrast, many of Pennsylvania's 457 public libraries "operate at such a lean and low level and did even before all of the impacts of pandemic and the economic downturn," she said. "It is a difficult time, and libraries are chronically underfunded."
In Bridgeville, financial strains caused by the debt on its 11-year-old library building prompted a novel arrangement.
The Bridgeville Public Library and the South Fayette Township Library now share a director and other staff that handle teen programs and outreach to children. They also share a marketing and digital engagement specialist.
Why not fully merge?
“There have been those conversations," said Ben Hornfeck, the shared director. "It’s never been something that has been fully considered, and I don’t think it will be.”
Bridgeville has an endowment from a private donor that requires its library to remain in existence, he explained. The libraries’ finances are markedly different because Bridgeville owns its building – and has a mortgage – while South Fayette operates in a township-owned space. Plus, two libraries may be able to tap more funding than one.
The area’s historic preference for local control also works against deeper change to the overall system – though virtually everyone interviewed acknowledged this is not the system anyone would design if they were starting from scratch.
Some library officials note that in a county with 130 separate municipalities and 43 school districts, libraries are in some ways lessfragmented than other civic services. They add that library users can access the entire catalog of 46 separate organizations with one card.
“If one entity comes and absorbs all of the libraries, there would be cuts,” said Homestead’s Shrieve. “They would lose the independence, the autonomy, and I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point.”
“I don't think anyone would choose this, but I don't see a whole bunch of mergers in the future. I just don't,” said Braddock’s Brehm.
But at least one powerful funder doesn’t see mergers or a more unified system as completely off the table.
“I think there would have to be an awful lot of thought into what a more unified system would look like,” said Richard Hudic, RAD’s executive director. “But is that out of the realm of possibility? No. You know, as funding becomes tighter, as resources shrink … people are always thinking about, is there a better way?”
For the time being, notes Banks, the library system remains novel in its fragmentation, “and it is such an object lesson in haves and have-nots and the maintenance of that reality.”
90.5 WESA’s parent organization,Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, is among the organizations that receive RAD funding.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.