Libraries seek ideas for remaining relevant
This week at the Carnegie Library of Homestead, talking loudly will be encouraged — at least for an hour or so.
Allegheny County Library Association and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Wednesday will host the first session of what's slated to be a six-month, countywide conversation about the role of libraries in the 21st century. The session begins at 11 a.m. at the library along E. Tenth Avenue in Munhall.
“Libraries will always be a place where learning and knowledge is disseminated,” said Fred Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation, which is facilitating the discourse, and chairman of the county-city library service panel formed to guide the process. “But how libraries will function in a new century and what role technology will play are still open questions.”
That's where community input comes in.
“The major purpose of this program is to understand what the citizens of Allegheny County want and need from their community libraries,” Thieman said. “We want to hear from as many people as possible.”
The effort began last month with the startup of CountyCityLibraries.org, a website with an online survey that residents can use to share their thoughts through Feb. 14.
The panel will pull from the surveys and use input from Wednesday's meeting to explore new opportunities for the 45 library systems in the county.
Thieman said the belief that libraries are endangered is a misconception. In 2011, Pittsburgh voters approved a special library property tax that added almost $4 million to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh funds.
In November, voters in Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead agreed to a similar 0.33-mill special real estate tax to go toward the maintenance and operation of the Carnegie Library of Homestead. Whitaker voters narrowly rejected the idea.
County elections manager Mark Wolosik said each borough's referendum stood on its own merits.
“Five or 10 years ago, people would've expected libraries to disappear,” Thieman said. “Borders bookstores is an example of where people saw libraries going. But the reality is that it's actually gone the opposite way. Libraries are in more demand now than they've ever been. But the medium in which they deal and the way they provide services is clearly going to change in light of emerging technology.”
Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association, said redefining the roles of libraries and their workers will be directly tied to changing technology.
“The library system has an infrastructure like a lot of infrastructures in the county — it's very old,” she said. “So two years ago, we built out a fiberoptic network ring that connects all of the libraries with high-speed bandwidth so they all have wireless access, state-of-the-art computer equipment and servers that store a lot of the data we use for the shared system. Twenty years ago, none of that was part of our business model.”
Tina Zins, library director at the Carnegie of Homestead, said although people still visit to read and check out books, more and more rely on the library as a technological hub.
“We're about equal access to information,” Zins said. “We have computers, fax machines and other resources available to everyone in the community.”
She said libraries have become invaluable resources to job seekers.
“We get a lot of people who come in needing help when it comes to that,” Zins said. “Everything from searching for openings on our computers to getting help writing resumes, it's becoming one of the ways that libraries are staying relevant to people.”
The panel plans to start presenting fleshed out ideas beginning in March for a summer report that will be analyzed by the library systems, local officials and the county Regional Asset District, which Jenkins said contributes a portion of the $55 million county libraries receive annually. But 50 percent of that total comes from local municipal funding, she said.
“That's why we want to hear from the public,” Jenkins said. “We're going to be looking at the needs of the people who use and help fund these libraries. We hope to learn what we're going to need to provide five or 10 years from now to ensure we're always adapted to the current times.”
To participate in the discussion, complete the online survey, email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, or attend Wednesday's meeting.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or email@example.com.