Pennsylvania’s public libraries have been struggling with their budgets for the past decade, PA Post’s Ed Mahon reported for a story that was published in the Aug. 25 Sunday LNP. In 2009, during the recession, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and the state Legislature slashed more than $15 million — or 20% — of the state’s general library subsidy. “The next year, lawmakers cut library funding again, (and) funding for libraries stayed mostly flat for several years,” Mahon reported.
In late June, the Republican-controlled state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf approved a $5 million increase for statewide library funding as part of the $34 billion budget for 2019-20.
That boosted libraries’ overall allocation from $54.47 million to $59.47 million, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
It was something to applaud — finally — after more than a decade of bad news from Harrisburg for libraries.
But Mahon notes that the Pennsylvania Library Association had “urged lawmakers to increase state funding by $11.28 million this year and by another $9.57 million next year.” Those requested increases would have served only to restore funding to 2009 levels.
So, from that perspective, this year’s $5 million bump is laudable, but not nearly enough.
State Rep. Stan Saylor, a York County Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Mahon that patience is in order, and he “hopes lawmakers can restore library funding to 2009 levels in the 2022-23 budget.”
In advocating a more gradual restoration of funding, Saylor argued, “let’s say we were to put the library funding back to $75 million. And then next year, because there’s a bad economy, you cut it back again.”
We don’t buy that logic. We don’t believe our public libraries should be subject to the annual winds of change within the economy. If anything, steady and robust state funding of libraries is even more crucial when the economy is struggling.
Cuts and creativity
Due to the state funding crunch over the past decade, many libraries have had to get creative in order to continue generating enough revenue to serve the public.
Mahon detailed how the Ephrata Public Library derives more than 20% of its nearly $1 million annual budget by processing about 4,000 passport applications per year.
“This is how we keep our doors open,” Executive Director Penny Talbert said.
Within the Library System of Lancaster County, Adamstown, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, Manheim Township, Milanof-Schock (Mount Joy) and Quarryville also offer passport services. But generating income by handling government business isn’t feasible for every library. And there simply aren’t many other ways to pay the bills when outside funding is insufficient. Many libraries have been forced to slash staff, hours and other worthwhile services during the past decade.
That’s not good for communities.
Libraries have been a crucial part of the fabric of Lancaster County since 1759, when the Lancaster Library Co. opened at the North Queen Street home of Benjamin Price.
They are places for education, intellectual stimulation and social interaction. They are stocked with children’s books containing centuries-old tales — but also the newest forms of technology.
“Libraries are so much more than books. If you haven’t been into a library in a long time, you might be surprised to see how busy it is,” Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star in June.
Everyone who regularly uses a local library likely agrees. (And those who don’t take advantage of libraries should check them out, no pun intended.)
Buker pointed out another specific example of how libraries strengthen our communities: For the past two years, they have been vital for Puerto Ricans who have come here after being displaced by Hurricane Maria. “Many rely on libraries to find government services, research jobs and housing, and learn English,” the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison noted. (An estimated 500 Puerto Ricans relocated to Lancaster County after Maria struck, LNP’s Junior Gonzàlez reported in September 2018.)
Worthy of support
From Adamstown to Quarryville. Milanof-Schock to Strasburg-Heisler. Columbia to Pequea Valley. Our county is filled with wonderful libraries offering storytime sessions, game nights, computer classes, book clubs, broadband internet access and so much more.
But they need support to deliver services to all.
In the context of Pennsylvania’s $34 billion budget, we don’t think that restoring funding to 2009 levels — the Pennsylvania Library Association’s modest request — should be difficult. These are nickels and dimes compared to other aspects of the budget.
Saylor, who plays a major role in state appropriations, understands the importance of libraries. He told the Inquirer he’s “seen the impact that libraries have had on people’s lives, from seniors to young children.”
So we don’t understand why he won’t lead the drive for a more rapid restoration of funding. We urge our Lancaster County legislators to push Saylor on the matter.
“Investing in libraries is investing in education, workforce development, literacy, lifelong learning, and our communities,” Buker wrote in a blog post for the Pennsylvania Library Association.
We agree. Libraries, like public education, are great equalizers. They are essential to the health of our democracy — not least because they are staffed by specialists who can help us find accurate information, an ever-more pressing challenge in this digital age. For so many of us, they’re also essential to quality of life.
The state should properly fund them.