Brainstorming begins on ways libraries can better serve users
As emerging technology continues to reshape the role of public libraries, a county-wide conversation is under way to determine what services and changes residents would like to see.
The Allegheny County Library Association and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have teamed up to initiate the discussion in order to better serve patrons' changing needs and expectations.
The plan is to brainstorm ideas this month, test them in the spring and have a possible new approach toward the 45 libraries served either by the county library association or Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, along with the eiNetwork that connects them all.
A community meeting on the matter took place Wednesday at Carnegie Library of Homestead in Munhall, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh community engagement coordinator Maggie McFalls said similar discussions took place at other locations across the county.
“This is a library system coming together to ask their users what matters to them,” McFalls said. “We're in a relative time of peace with no real crisis on the horizon, so the idea is to get out in front of any kind of budget crisis or what have you now.”
A handful of local residents attended the meeting in Munhall along with the Carnegie Library of Homestead director of administration Carol Shrieve and library director Tina Zins; Homestead council vice president Barbara Broadwater; and Steel Valley School District Superintendent Ed Wehrer.
“People here love their libraries,” McFalls said. “There's a very strong, favorable impression of libraries and the importance of the services they provide. But there are important shifts happening.”
McFalls said the most noticeable change is that many libraries provide residents with their only access to computers and the Internet.
“With the advent of computer terminals in libraries, suddenly we have to be experts in anything that exists with that computer,” she said. “We've got one of those 3D printers (at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh) and it's a wonderful service to the community. But there is so much in the back end that goes into knowing how to run the software and train our staff to run it who, in turn, train the public. With technology, there are more and more demands on librarians to increase their skills.”
McFalls pointed to increased competition for funding and said state funding to libraries has dropped 33 percent since 2001.
Adrienne Irwin, president of the Friends of the Library at Carnegie Library of Homestead, said it's important that libraries embrace their role as a technology center.
“Providing access to technology for everyone helps level the playing field for students competing with districts like Upper St. Clair,” Irwin said. “It's a place where all young people can come and develop marketable skills.”
Broadwater, who criticized the 0.33-mill property tax stipend to benefit the library that Steel Valley voters approved in the November election, said she believes the Carnegie Library of Homestead would benefit from more free offerings and more marketing.
“I think a lot of people don't know all that the library offers,” she said.
Other suggestions during the meeting included more cooperation among all of the branches in the system, such as shared board governance, grant writing and professional development.
Shrieve, however, said there's danger in public libraries giving up too much control — especially those like the Carnegie Library of Homestead.
“We wouldn't want another entity from outside our community coming in and dictating how we use our funds,” she said. “It isn't ‘one size fits all.'”
McFalls said this initiative is still in its early stages and changes to be made — if any are chosen to be implemented — will go through a thorough debate.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.