Report recommends mandatory standards for Allegheny County libraries

| Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 12:00 p.m.

Libraries in Allegheny County need to combine their central services, adhere to state standards and find more sources of money, according to a task force report released on Tuesday.

The city-county report, “21st Century Library Service in Allegheny County,” found that funding given to libraries varies wildly, from 16 cents to $42.39 per capita. Some communities provide no money. “As a result, levels of service differ greatly among all libraries.”

A panel chaired by Buhl Foundation President Fred Thieman produced the report, which concluded seven months of work.

By 2018, library deficits will rise from an estimated $530,233 this year to $2.6 million, the panel cautioned. The shortfall covers services such as shipping materials between libraries and technology that allows patrons to use digital card catalogues and browse the Internet.

The panel, composed of representatives from the boards of the Allegheny County Library Association and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, held community meetings and met with leaders of the 45 independent libraries in Pittsburgh and the county. Foundations paid for the study.

Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the library association, said a countywide tax should be explored to ensure libraries receive adequate funding. A similar tax in the city goes to the Carnegie Library.

“The goal is not to overtax anybody but to provide consistent funding that benefits the system,” Jenkins said.

The state sets service standards for the library association to cover hours of operation, staffing, collections and resources. Just 17 of the association's 45 member libraries meet all standards.

With money tight several years ago, the Carnegie Library failed to meet state standards for hours of operation and planned to close four branches. The library system shelved the plan and has met standards. Carnegie officials credit the passage of the 0.25-mill tax and money from Rivers Casino, as well as funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District.

“We're only as strong as all the libraries in the county are strong, and they're only as strong as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,” said Mary Francis Cooper, president and director of the system.

Two years ago, the Braddock Carnegie Library had trouble meeting standards for its collections budget and newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Library Director Anita Green expects to meet them all this year.

“On the one hand,” she said, “we should have standards for the sole purpose of having good quality service to all of our patrons. On the other hand, I do understand that money is hard to come by.”

A key finding, Jenkins said, is that 30 library systems get no local support. The Braddock library gets $500 from the municipality and $11,000 from Woodland Hills School District.

Jan McMannis, 67, of Braddock Hills volunteers at the library two or three times a week. She likes the idea of a countywide tax.

“In an area like the Mon Valley ... it's hard to have money generated from the population itself,” she said. “There's not a big tax base.”

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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