In late May, a sign was taped to the door of the 93-year-old Leechburg Public Library. Bold black print notified the Armstrong County community that the independent library would close permanently that night.
Karen Freilino, like many, found out through Facebook. The 70-year-old life-long Leechburg resident said she was dumbfounded.
She said in a lot of ways, a public library represents the vitality of the community. The town is smaller than it once was, with 2,000 residents; it’s now smaller than the workforce that was once employed by the local steel mill.
“I think we've gone into a period where that employment situation is not available anymore and we're still trying to thrive and keep the town going with some of the same values it always had and some of the same institutions it has always had,” Freilino said.
Soon after the library closed she organized a meeting at the fire hall, kicking off a summer-long effort to re-open the library.
Doreen Smeel is on the library’s board at that time and said the library was often empty, with fewer than a dozen visitors a week.
“We had children come in here because this is a computer area and they would come in here, but honestly from what the librarian said it wasn’t studying, homework,” she said. “They were playing games. She felt she was being more of a babysitter, I think.”
Part of the challenge is that the library is housed in the local high school. There is a separate entrance, but for security reasons the library is only open during weekday evenings, which contributes to the low foot traffic. Because the library isn’t open full time, it doesn’t qualify for state funding. Instead, it relies on the high school to pay for maintenance and utilities and depends on donations for the rest.
After it closed, a new board formed with Freilino leading the group as president. Volunteers spent the summer putting books back on the shelves.
Re-thinking the library
On Sept. 3, the library re-opened. The first patron was 11-year-old Brooklyn Redmond.
She sat at a table cluttered with textbooks working on long division. She likes having a quiet space where she can focus on homework. She said in the past, she spent a lot of time playing games on the computers.
The library has to evolve. That was the sentiment conveyed by library board member Ron Walko. This summer he told a group of residents gathered at the library that if they wanted the space to be relevant, there must be a shift in thinking.
“The younger generation is coming up and we need to find a balance between the older generation who loves the books and the new generation,” he said.
He mimicked typing on a smart phone as he said the younger generation is used to having access to technology. A number of the mostly older attendees nodded in agreement.
The board is developing youth and adult programing and ramping up communication through social media. Recently, it hired a new, part-time clerk who Freilino describes as young and tech-savvy.
Leaders are planning fundraisers and eventually want the library to move into its own building.
Financial uncertainty is not unique to the Leechburg Library. Libraries across Pennsylvania and the U.S. depend on funding streams that often fluctuate.
When Andrew Carnegie funded the creation of libraries across the U.S., he did so on the basis of a financial promise: He’d build the library, but only if the community pledged to support it financially. More than 100 years later, every library is funded differently, but for the most part, libraries all draw from state funding, local dollars, and donations. The stability of two of those financial sources, state and local dollars, help explain why libraries are struggling today.
“The challenge has been that the funding stream is not always very stable and fluctuates,” said Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association. She said the 2008 recession affected the stability of state funding for libraries. State funding was cut from $75 million to around $54 million in annual state aid.
“Everybody got cuts across the state when the recession hit, understandable, and libraries had to make cuts in services,” said Buker.
Some of the biggest expenses are employees and materials. Libraries cut hours, held off on maintenance, avoided buying new bestsellers, and eventually laid-off staff in order to keep doors open.
“[Libraries have] stretched every penny as far as they can,” Buker said. “And some communities are just beginning to recover from that, and others are still hurting.”
Buker estimated most libraries get between 16 and 21 percent of funding from the state. While the state slowly began to recover from the recession, took years for libraries to see any increase in state funding. Which forced some libraries to get creative with how they bring in local dollars. Pittsburgh is a good example of that.
Former Pittsburgh city councilor and current chair of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Patrick Dowd, said that in 2009 the library system was having significant financial issues.
“[The library’s] not like an amusement park where they can charge people who walk through the door,” he said. “The sign above the door says ‘free to the people.’”
In 2009, Dowd got a call from the director of the library, who said they were going to have to close four of its 19 library branches. It was just after the recession hit, and library revenue was stagnant. The library’s major source of revenue is the regional asset district, or RAD, which distributes funds collected through a countywide 1 percent sales tax.
“The RAD was doing all it could, the state was contributing revenue and doing all it could, but that was not sufficient to maintain operations as they were at that time,” Dowd said.
Dowd suggested that they put a referendum on the ballot to generate a new sustainable source of cash. The proposal would create a special library tax by dedicating a quarter mill of real estate tax ($25 on $100,000 of assessed property value). In 2011, the referendum passed with broad support from voters. As property taxes rise, so has the revenue for the library. Dowd said it will bring in $4.2 million this year.
“It’s been a healthy change financially for the library,” Dowd said. But still, he said, the library has to be vigilant and constantly monitor the system’s finances.
“There’s always an instability issue,” Dowd said. “There are changes on the horizon, all sorts of things happen. So no, I wouldn’t say that it’s stable.”
But the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is in better shape than it used to be. This year, other libraries across Pennsylvania saw the first funding increase in the state budget in over a decade, though it’s still well below what it was before the recession.
That slow increase in funding holds true across the country, according to Meredith Schwartz, executive editor of Library Journal, a trade publication.
“Relative to where [libraries] want to be, we’ve lost ground,” Schwartz said. “But as far as catching back up to those losses, so far, on the whole across the country, I think libraries are doing okay.
Schwartz said that could change if the country enters another recession, which many economists point to as a possibility.
WESA receives funding from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.