Library funding in Pennsylvania

Everyone remembers the bookish kid who used to get picked on after class for no good reason.

Socked by several rounds of state budget cuts, at a time when they say demand for services has never been greater, the people who run Pennsylvania's public libraries are feeling much the same way.

"I know everyone has to cut and I understand that," Janet Fricker, director of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, told a legislative panel Wednesday. "It seems as though libraries have been on first, to take the worst. There's a mistaken idea we're not essential. We are essential."

Fricker was one of several area library directors to come before the House Democratic Policy Committee in Bethlehem to discuss the implications of cuts to public libraries, which also receive local support.
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Library officials who appeared before the committee Wednesday at Moravian College all said they've gotten busier since the bottom fell out of the economy two years ago. Parents are taking advantage of easy access to books for their children, and job seekers are using free access to the Internet to troll the help-wanted ads.

"The people of Pennsylvania want and need their libraries," said Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, who organized the hearing. "Pennsylvania is the state that built the first public library. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin started the first one."

State funding for libraries was cut by 9 percent, to $54.5 million, in the $28.04 billion state budget that Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law last month. Overall, state funding has declined by $21 million, from $75.5 million in 2006-07.

The subsidy provides 20 percent to 25 percent of the operating budgets for local libraries, said M. Clare Zales, deputy secretary for libraries at the state Department of Education, which controls the subsidy.

Rendell on Wednesday announced a possible 1.9 percent across-the-board cut in discretionary spending. That could further affect libraries, said the House panel's chairman, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster.

The decline in state support doesn't reflect how heavily libraries are used, Zales said. Library use is up 10 percent from the last economic downturn in 2001 and the number of items being lent is up by more than a quarter.

"Unfortunately, this increase comes at a time when communities are least able to support their libraries," she said.

Fricker said she expects to shave about 10 percent from her $3 million budget for 2010, and things are getting snug.

"We can't run our libraries on bake sales," said Fricker, who's had to trim hours and furlough staff to make ends meet. "It's unfortunate we're in a recession right now. Our communities can't jump in and make that up."

Allentown Public Library Director Renee Haines told committee members she was forced to close a branch on Emmaus Avenue in 2009, prompting layoffs for several part-time employees. With a budget of $2.2 million, Haines said she's been able to duck any further staff cuts and hasn't been forced to trim hours. But, she said, that might not last.

With at least some lawmakers focused on the libraries' plight, Haines said she hopes the Legislature will pay attention next year.

In Easton, where the library is getting ready to celebrate its 200th anniversary, director Jennifer Stoecker has had to make do with less spending on new materials and an increased reliance on library boosters to provide programming.

The reductions come as the library has seen a 23 percent increase in visitors, she said.

"In times of recession, libraries are used more and more," Stoecker said.

Several people who testified recommended giving communities greater flexibility to come up with ways to pay for local libraries or to approve a so-called "dedicated" funding source that would provide a predictable stream of cash.

One way to do that would be to create library districts, modeled on school districts, that would levy a "library tax," said Glenn R. Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association.