Keeping ‘the lights on’: Pennsylvania’s libraries poised to get first state funding boost in a decade

By: - June 28, 2019 6:30 am

A bipartisan effort among Pennsylvania lawmakers to bolster career readiness and workforce skills could be a boon to public libraries, which are due to get their first state funding increase in nearly a decade.

The 2019-20 spending plan that Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign this week includes a $59 million allocation for Pennsylvania’s public library subsidy — a 9 percent bump from the current fiscal year that ends July 1, and the fund’s first increase since 2010.

Advocates say it’s a crucial victory for public libraries, which provide thousands of Pennsylvanians with internet access to search for jobs or enroll in government services. 

“[State funding] is a significant portion of our operating income,” Karen Cullings, interim executive director of the Dauphin County Library System, said. “It really keeps the doors open and the lights on in a lot of ways.”

Libraries across the state are still reeling from deep cuts sustained in 2003, when the General Assembly slashed the library subsidy. Many libraries reduced their hours or programs to trim costs.

The constraint forced the Dauphin County Library System to cut one day of operations at each of its eight branches. They still haven’t restored seven-day-a-week programs, Cullings said, but an increase in state aid is a “step in the right direction” to put libraries back on firm financial footing.

Since public libraries are offering more services today than ever before, the past decade of flat funding was especially hard to bear, Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, said. 

“Libraries are so much more than books,” Buker said “If you haven’t been into a library in a long time, you might be surprised to see how busy it is.”

Demand for e-books and audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years, but library patrons haven’t lost interest in traditional book-borrowing programs, Cullings said. 

Libraries also offer public access to computer and internet services, serving job seekers and students who might not have reliable internet connections at home. Some branches are even morphing into human service agencies. 

The Dauphin County Library System, which maintains a downtown Harrisburg branch just blocks from the Capitol complex, partners with the county human services department to train employees to respond to patrons in need. 

Thanks to that partnership, library employees know how to refer patrons to housing services and how to interact with patrons who may be mentally ill, Cullings said.

For nearly two years, Pennsylvania’s libraries have been particularly vital for people from Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Buker said. Many rely on libraries to find government services, research jobs and housing, and learn English.

Not adjusted for inflation, the proposed allocation to public libraries is $20 million lower than it was at its historic high in 2001, Buker said. That year, the library fund got $75 million in state aid.

Public libraries also receive local revenue and charitable donations, which are much easier to incentivize when state funding is strong, Buker said. But since state aid remains a crucial piece of their funding, Buker hopes this year’s increase is the first of many to come. 

“We know that proportionally, this may seem like a big increase,” Buker said. “But it’s not even close to restoring where we were. We have a long way to go.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.