Libraries are all too easy to take for granted.
In the century since Andrew Carnegie went on a library-building binge in big cities, tiny hamlets and every crossroads in between, they’ve been dependable community anchors and centers for learning for patrons of all stripes. There’s nothing preventing members of the poorest household in town from getting a library card and having access to books, magazines, movies, music, the internet, and on and on — basically, the knowledge of the world.
Unfortunately, when it comes to people taking libraries for granted, lawmakers in Harrisburg have long had a place at the top of the list. State funding for libraries in Pennsylvania was as high as $75 million per year in the early 2000s, but was cut during the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell and has never again rebounded to that level.
Last year, $54 million was allocated for libraries in the commonwealth’s budget. In the budget signed in June by Gov. Tom Wolf, however, the commonwealth’s 470 libraries received $59 million, $5 million more than the year before. Sure, it’s not the salad days of $75 million again, but the additional dollars will help cash-strapped libraries pay for maintenance, collections, staff and all the other increasing expenses that libraries have had to confront, even as funding has remained flat or decreased.
After signing the budget, Wolf declared that public libraries “are a vital partner for state government in strengthening our civic awareness and learning.” State Rep. Stan Saylor, a York County Republican and advocate for libraries, pointed out that they “play a big part in our education system. They’re overlooked many times. People assume libraries aren’t needed because we have the internet, but people forget that not everybody can afford the internet.”
State aid accounts for only a slice of library funding, with the rest coming from local governments and grants. Of course, local governments have their own woes when it comes to budgets, and Washington-area residents who appreciate Citizens Library learned just how precarious local funding can be a couple of years ago when some municipalities lowered their contributions or, like East Washington or the Trinity Area School District, cut them entirely.
Libraries may be fixtures in the areas in which they serve, but, at the same time, they are also fragile. Without proper support, we run the risk of losing them altogether. For an example, look no further than the Armstrong County community of Leechburg. Its public library abruptly closed for good in May, and residents expressed sadness and shock on hearing the news, according to Greensburg’s Tribune-Review, even though one of the reasons cited for the library’s demise was a “decrease in community interest and support.”
We shouldn’t allow public libraries to become one of those things that we miss and appreciate only when they are gone. That’s why supporting them — with both funding and patronage — is critical.