Libraries: too important to fail
Two libraries in Wayne County, PA, those in Hawley and Newfoundland, are in a pickle. Forty-six percent of their active users are residents of Pike County. Yet, the two libraries in question are largely left to carry the funding burden themselves.
It will perhaps not come as a surprise then that recently, in a presentation to Pike County Commissioners, MaryAnne Teeter, a former Hawley librarian, asked them to allocate 23% of their countywide library budget to help share some of the expenses for services the Wayne libraries provide to residents of Lackawaxen, Palmyra and Blooming Grove townships. (These three Pike County municipalities account for 23% of Pike’s population.) Township supervisors in these three municipalities have backed the Wayne libraries’ request.
In recent years, as state government has rolled back funding for Pennsylvania’s public libraries, these institutions have been forced to reduce hours, cut staff and freeze payroll, among various cutbacks. To their credit, many volunteers have stepped in and are now indispensible to the operation of local libraries in our rural area. Also, to their credit, libraries have come up with innovative ways to raise money locally and have found support from many community organizations, businesses and through grants.
The Wayne Library Alliance (WLA), an umbrella organization that represents Wayne County’s main library in Honesdale and six outlying branches, receives 50% of its revenue from community fundraising and local foundations. Its other funding sources include 25% from the state and 25% from Wayne County, which has just proposed to increase its library budget in 2014. Even these funds, however, may not be enough to operate the library system. Witness 2012, when the WLA ran at a deficit.
Wayne County libraries are not alone in their struggle to provide services and stay afloat. Pennsylvania’s budget cutbacks are a key reason that many of the Commonwealth’s libraries are struggling. In 2008, the state budgeted $75 million for its 450 public libraries; in 2009, that number was reduced to $60 million; and this was cut again to $54 million in 2010, where the figure has remained virtually unchanged, with $53.5 million budgeted for 2013-2014.
We at The River Reporter believe that the funding dilemma facing libraries today requires all of us to consider two critical questions: how important are public libraries in the information age, and are they too important to let them fail? (This second question is reminiscent of that asked about Wall Street banks in 2008 when they were deemed too big to fail.)
Most people would agree that libraries are a significant asset and vital resource in any community. They supply invaluable services: promote literacy education, present public programs and workshops on just about every subject under the sun, offer technology training and provide critical Internet access, (especially important for those who cannot afford to own a computer or other smart device). Libraries help people, including those who are applying for jobs, doing homework, getting information about health care, finding out about government benefits and managing their finances.
Libraries make our lives better and our communities better places. Libraries are a gathering place for educational, social, civic and cultural engagement. Libraries are a refuge, a place for personal growth and reinvention. Libraries foster social equality and are a tool of democracy. Libraries are filled with knowledge just waiting to be learned.
We urge the Pike County Commissioners to reach an accommodation with the two Wayne County libraries. It is simply a matter of fairness that Wayne County taxpayers and citizens should not have to carry the burden for providing these essential services to so many Pike County residents.
We urge the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to find other places to cut funds and to again increase funding for libraries. Austerity may have its place, but when it comes to basic community institutions like libraries, austerity must also have its limits.
We salute Wayne County commissioners for proposing to increase library funding in the coming year.
We urge every Wayne County and Pike County resident with a library card to lobby for better library funding at the state, county and municipal level, because libraries are a smart investment in our future. Being quiet about budget cuts for libraries is implicit approval.
Studies show that during challenging economic times, library usage rises. Therefore it only makes sense that when demand for libraries and their services is increasing, they need to be able to meet the demand without fear of having to close the doors.
Before there were public libraries, book collections were the province of colleges and universities, and of wealthy individuals—those who could afford to own private collections. Public libraries changed that. Public libraries are the great equalizer in a democracy. Access to information and knowledge must remain free and open to all. Libraries must remain adequately funded.