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Libraries: too important to fail

December 4, 2013

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.)