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McCandless library seeks free space to allow expansion

| Monday, March 7, 2011

Jodi Goldfarb drove to Northland Public Library through the slippery aftermath of a recent snowstorm, seeking information about fixing furnaces. Hers was on the fritz for a few hours and, with temperatures dropping, it had become a pressing matter.

After consulting how-to books, Goldfarb, 31, of Marshall discovered the task would require professional expertise, so she waited for a computer to look up a heating and cooling specialist in the area.

"I have Internet at home, but I really just got here," she said. "Coming to the library isn't easy when there's traffic and bad weather outside."

The library's location between Perry Highway and McKnight Road in McCandless is in the middle of the five communities it serves: Ross, McCandless, Franklin Park, Bradford Woods and Marshall. That covers 62 square miles and about 75,000 people.

"We're serving more of our outlying service area, where the population has grown," said Cynthia Potter, chair of the library's board of directors. "We need to look at ways to expand."

That is increasingly difficult.

State funding for libraries in Pennsylvania was cut by more than $30 million in the past three years -- from $95 million in 2008-09 to $61 million in 2010-11 -- and some library officials anticipate deeper cuts for 2011-12.

Libraries across the state have cut budgets, slashed hours and, in some cases, closed because of funding cuts.

Undaunted, Northland officials are trying to expand, in the simplest way possible: by asking for free space.

Armed with an April report by Wisconsin-based library consultants Himmel & Wilson, which said the building is about 14,000 square feet smaller than it should be, library director Sandra Collins last month asked Ross commissioners if they'd donate space in the Ross Township Community Center for a satellite branch.

Collins hoped Ross would look to the C.C. Mellor Memorial Library -- which opened a satellite branch in the Forest Hills Senior Citizen Center in 2003 -- as an example. The library, which serves Braddock Hills, Churchill, Edgewood, Forest Hills and Wilkins, rents the space from Forest Hills Borough for $1 a year and keeps it stocked with oft-requested books and other popular materials.

"We're looking for someone to partner with us and recognize that having a library in their community would be beneficial," Collins said.

Ross commissioners appeared lukewarm about the idea. Some said they'd want the library to pay rent; others said they'd want the library to accept a lower annual payment from the township to use the space. Ross gave the library $415,000 in 2010 and is expected to give $426,000 this year.

"My personal opinion is that to establish a location based upon the generosity of a landlord is an uneasy proposition," Commissioner Dan Kinross said.

'Convenience branches'

Several libraries have had success with so-called "convenience branches," according to the Himmel & Wilson report, although few libraries in Pennsylvania have attempted such expansions. The library in Wichita, Kan., operates a branch with fewer than 1,000 square feet and less than three full-time-equivalent staff members; the Dallas public library operates a mini-children's facility in a retail mall.

Collins said a single convenience branch in Ross would require the equivalent of two or three full-time staff members. Northland would stock the location with popular books and materials for adults and children, she said. Hours for the convenience branch are undetermined.

The convenience location in Forest Hills has been an asset for the C.C. Mellor Memorial Library, said Executive Director Sally Bogie. The branch is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays and 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

"That branch is really meeting a need there," Bogie said. "We've heard nothing but positive remarks about it."

When the Community Library of Allegheny Valley moved its main branch from Tarentum to Natrona Heights in 2000, the library kept a location in Tarentum.

"Many people there don't have access to transportation, so it would be very difficult for them to not have their library," library Director Kathy Firestone said. "I think people in Tarentum were apprehensive at first. People thought we were going to abandon library services there. I think now they realize that keeping a location there is part of our goal, they've grown to accept it."

Those who lived closer to the new library in Natrona Heights "were excited to have a library close by," Firestone said.

47 million visits

As money for libraries has decreased and the economy begins to mend from the recession, many people continue to turn to libraries for the free services they offer, said Glenn R. Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

Last year, people made 47 million visits to public libraries in Pennsylvania, Miller said, "up significantly" from previous years.

"Generally speaking, we know libraries are scrambling right now. We really had the guts ripped out of some of these state programs," Miller said.

Gov. Tom Corbett pledged not to raise taxes, yet faces a $4 billion budget deficit for 2012. Corbett must present a balanced budget to the Legislature on Tuesday. The state's fiscal year begins July 1.

Last year, the Community Library of Allegheny Valley in Natrona Heights and Tarentum received $74,000 from the state, down from about $125,000 in 2001, Firestone said. Additional cuts "would be devastating," she said.

The Mt. Lebanon Public Library cut six staff positions and reduced the number of part-time employees over the past five years. The Public Library for Union County last year cut Sunday hours and shortened one weekday.

Kittanning's library cut its book-buying budget last year by $8,000 -- from $20,000 to $12,000 -- and reduced programs, Director Amanda Gearhart said.

"Additional cuts will be difficult. The next cut we'll have to look at is cutting hours," Gearhart said.

State funding for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh dropped from $5.9 million in 2009 to $3.3 million this year, or 14 percent of the library's $23.9 million budget.

Carnegie officials are looking for ways to generate long-term revenue for the system's 19 locations, including a voter referendum that would dedicate $3 million to $4 million of property taxes for the library system.

Carnegie Library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes said the library is doing everything it can to keep from closing branches, "to make sure we are meeting our mission."

Adjustments made

Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said he's afraid Corbett's potential "draconian cuts" in funding will force libraries to offer fewer amenities.

"I think there comes a time when every institution has to be challenged to think outside the box. Libraries have done their share of (adjusting to lower revenues)," Ferlo said.

At Northland, officials are trying to balance their need to expand while grappling with lower revenue. Two years ago, the library instituted a hiring freeze, and this year cut its materials budget from $300,000 to $199,000.

"We're trying to make do and still offer the same services in both quality and quantity as we're expected to," Collins said.

Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association, said libraries across the county need to do the most with the resources they receive.

"We need to find a better way to do business. The demand for library services continues to go up, so we're forced to deliver more service with fewer dollars, and that's never an easy situation," she said.

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