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Libraries seek ways to reach readers

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2002

With names like Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie tied to its past, Pennsylvania stands tall in the annals of library history.

But a recent national library ranking cut the Keystone State down to size, rating its public libraries 43rd in the nation, based on a comparison of 15 measures ranging from per capita expenditures to circulation.

The state slipped from 41st place in the third edition of Hennen's American Public Library Ratings to its new standing in Hennen's fourth national report, the so-called HAPLR Index, which ranked 9,000 libraries nationwide.

Thomas J. Hennen Jr., director of the Waukesha County (Wisconsin) Federated Library System, created the library rating system four years ago, using numbers libraries report to the federal government. An admitted statistics junkie, Hennen said he launched the ranking after discovering there were no national scales for ranking libraries in the United States.

Although he grades all libraries on the same criteria, with a maximum score of 1,000, Hennen divides the institutions into 10 population-based categories, ranging from those that serve populations of less than 1,000 to those serving more than 500,000 people.

Only one Pennsylvania library, the Lower Merion Library System in eastern Pennsylvania, with a score of 856, ranked in the top 10 in any category. Statewide, Pennsylvania libraries averaged a score of 402. Even the venerable Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, with its well-known "ready reference" service, scored only 480.

Pennsylvania librarians say they face tough odds when stacked up against libraries in surrounding states.

Although Benjamin Franklin launched the nation's first lending library in Philadelphia and Carnegie endowed library buildings throughout western Pennsylvania, state support for those institutions has been less than stellar.

For example, Ohio, which boasted many of the nation's top-ranked facilities, spends nearly $500 million a year on libraries. In contrast, Pennsylvania will spend only $75 million on them this year, up from $29 million in 1998.

Glenn Miller, director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, said the additional dollars should make a significant difference in the state's standing. But that didn't show up on the recent HAPLR Index because the ranking was based on numbers that were already two years old when they were reported to the federal government.

Miller predicted the next index will show improvement, but he said libraries still face an uphill battle.

"By no means do we think we're out of the woods in terms of what we can and ought to be offering," he said.

Long-term plans that called for state support for libraries to rise to $125 million a year, with additional increments of $19 million a year, were tabled temporarily last summer when shortfalls in state revenues forced lawmakers to shelve any increase for the 2002-03 budget.

Hennen agreed that finances are a major factor in predicting library performance.

"It's a little tough to get a great performance out of a poorly supported library," he said.

Tracy Trotter is director of the Adams Memorial Library, which serves a population of 51,000 from its main building in Latrobe and branches in Unity and Derry townships. She said community support from corporations, foundations and civic groups has been key to building a facility people want to embrace.

Adams Memorial Library, which scored 521 on the HAPLR Index, makes an effort to meet community needs in terms of books, children's programs, computer access, outreach programs and hours. And the library literally took its outreach effort to the marketplace.

"There are other libraries with storefronts, but we believe we're one of only two in the world in supermarkets," she said, explaining how the library placed a branch in a Shop 'n Save supermarket along busy Route 30.

Attitude also plays a role, Trotter speculated. "We're not a 'shush' library," she said.

Delmont Library, which serves a population of approximately 3,100, has pulled Westmoreland County's top scores in the last two HAPLR rankings, with scores of 677 and 704, respectively. Although its service area is much smaller than Adams', librarian Helen Colclaser also sees community support as key.

"We have a very active board," said Colclaser, who is set to retire after nearly three decades in the field.

The borough provides Delmont Library with a home, paying its utility bills and rent. In turn, the 16,000-volume library boasts various community outreach efforts, as well as an active children's program.

"We work on that. I feel if you don't catch them young, you're not going to get them," Colclaser said.

"One of our elementary schools has a reading incentive program with us. A while back, we had 150 kids and parents here one night," she added.

At the other end of the spectrum, the German-Masontown Public Library in Fayette County scored 146 on the HAPLR Index. Sister Ann Horvath, a retired teacher who took over as library director last year, said the HAPLR numbers should serve as even more incentive to adopt programs that will attract readers.

"The board is working well with me, and we certainly want to be top notch," she said.

Hennen wasn't surprised. He said some librarians have even thanked him for publicizing their low scores, saying the publicity helped them to leverage public support.

"When you get a bad grade in school, you can either hate the teacher or see what you can do about it," he said.

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