The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Gary Grossman

June 23, 2014

Throw the book at ’em

Where population is too sparse to support art galleries, museums, concert halls and stage plays with ticket sales, public libraries are windows to culture and a center for discussion and engagement for many Pennsylvanians.

New technological conveniences for library customers, however, have added layers of cost and chaos to the lives of librarians.

Once upon a time, a librarian could buy a book, then rotate it on and off a shelf. Now that book comes in print, a downloadable ebook, a CD pack or direct-to-device audio and eventually, a movie on DVD. The publishing and licensing agreement and expenses are all over the lot as producers and distributors recoup their investments.

One librarian told me her customer computer stations have expanded from two to 13 and even those are nearly always in download overtime these days.

Another local librarian pointed out that the formula used to calculate her financial allocation from the state is based on a time when her library served 6,650 users. She now has more than 12,000 and no one has updated the formula since 2003.

Here, I need to pause for pertinent disclosure. I am not entirely disinterested. I serve with a local library board, and have been on successive allocation panels for local libraries two years for the United Way. Also, I recently mastered the entire alphabet.

While that association fuels some bias, it has also produced an observation, well known in library circles. The people who use libraries and the people who volunteer to support libraries are different sets of citizens.

In our towns, the people who raise money for libraries often include the influential, comfortable and well off. In their homes, they can afford what libraries have to offer. Yet, they are still on board for fund raising because they realize that young families and the underemployed get a lot out of story time, computer access and early learning at the local public library.

The generosity of library donors is, at heart, generosity of the spirit. As such, it ceases to exist in Harrisburg, where this paradox has been exploited for the past six years.

There, libraries have been looked upon by legislators as book warehouses, obscure ponds of ready cash to be drained whenever government cannot reconcile necessary public investments with no-tax pledges, which is always.

People who allocate state funds know they can smack library providers and users pretty hard with budget cuts before the funders yell “Ouch!” It sounds cynical (because it is).

And the state library association seems tentatively not eager to take it anymore — not quite mad as hell, but getting there. From the association website, here is the key phrase in this year’s call to arms: “The time has come for Pennsylvania’s libraries to leverage their literacy leadership which, in turn, moves PA Forward.”

Yesss! Good on ya’, mate!

How many times has anyone seen state legislators stand up to leveraged literacy leadership? Not that many, I am thinking — just these past six years of budget shrinkage.

This time around, Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed a $500,000 increase in the subsidy for public libraries and another $2.9 for library access, scattered to three elements of library database and delivery systems.

I called challenger Tom Wolf’s headquarters Wednesday where a chipper-voiced staffer told me they did not know the candidate’s position, but they would check and get back to me. When Wolf tells his staff what he wants to do about libraries and if his staff tells us, we will pass it along.

Governors propose. Legislators dispose. The meaningful political communications need to be between rural library card holders and rural legislators.

In Snyder County, about one in every three citizens is a library card holder. Sunbury, Lewisburg and Milton have similar ratios in their growing programs and clubs for young children, teenagers and workshops and discussion groups for aspiring adults.

State support for rural libraries will be restored when legislators use their collective voting power for the people they serve with the audacity they display when shielding shale gas drillers from impact fees and extraction taxes.

Individually, rural legislators aren’t worth much to voters. Together, however, they should be able to restore funding to our libraries. 

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.

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Gary Grossman
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