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E-readers may be fix library's seeking

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Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

Buy 'em some Kindles.

That strategy might be the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's best approach to solving its chronic financial problems, especially if city residents reject next week's ballot question that supporters contend is critical to the 19-branch system's future.

It's on a 0.25-mill property tax hike that would generate about $3.5 million annually for the library system. What would it cost city homeowners• On a property assessed at $100,000, an extra $25 a year.

That's less than the list price of John Grisham's latest hardback, but there are two good reasons why the proposal probably is doomed.

Reason one: Most city residents are aware their taxes support the library, largely through the Allegheny Regional Asset District. Funded by a county sales tax increase in 1994, RAD was supposed to keep the library and other regional attractions permanently on solid financial footing.

That hasn't worked as well as anticipated.

Reason two: People are allowed to attend just one library board of trustees meeting each year, so the levy would amount to taxation without representation. Most Carnegie branches probably have several tomes detailing how well such situations go over with the public.

If the referendum fails, what then?

One possibility is to try other recommendations in a Carnegie task force report on library fundraising, released in January. It mentions, for example, pursuing more individual, corporate and foundation donations, and attempting to establish an endowment.

Those suggestions are so stunningly obvious as to be virtually useless. It's akin to saying you should try to raise money by trying to raise more money.

Another possibility is a more radical use of the library's RAD money. Perhaps the Carnegie should ditch many of its branches and simply purchase e-readers for the folks who no longer could visit their local libraries.

A far-fetched proposal• Not from a financial perspective.

For nearly the same $23.9 million it costs to operate the system this year, the Carnegie could purchase a $79 Amazon Kindle for nearly each of the city's 305,000 people -- even those too young to read, or those who prefer watching "Two and a Half Men" to reading "The Three Musketeers."

The bargain-end Kindles subject readers to advertisements and sponsored screensavers. But it's possible to download on them myriad classic books and pay the same amount as you would if you physically checked them out -- nothing.

People probably would have to trek to an actual library if they wanted to read Grisham for free. But the Kindles would enable the Carnegie to cut building maintenance, utility and staffing costs while maintaining free access to voluminous amounts of reading material.

It's far from a perfect solution, but so is the referendum.

Sometimes you have to think outside the book.

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