The Elizabethtown Public Library will close its doors for one week, from Aug. 23 to 30, because of severe cuts in state funding, according to a report in the Aug. 12 edition of the Elizabethtown Advocate (that's the best link -- the paper's not online yet).
The newspaper reported that Pennsylvania state government will cut funding to libraries statewide by 9.1 percent. Last year, the state cut funding by 27 percent. So we're looking at libraries taking a hit of one-third of their funding, basically because the economy is in the most severe recession in my lifetime.
On the one hand, it's understandable. Cuts in the state budget have to come from somewhere, and no program is immune -- especially since the Commonwealth will receive $250 million less in federal money than expected.
The problem with not just cutting -- but slashing to the bone -- library funding is well documented. In testimony Aug. 11 before the state House's Majority Policy Committee, Glenn R. Miller, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association testified:
"... during this horrible recession, more and more Pennsylvanians rely on free services at their local public library. Families who cannot afford to buy books or DVDs turn to the library for summer reading and viewing. Unemployed workers who lost Internet access at home—or never had it at all—turn to the library to find and apply for jobs. Seniors who want to learn the basics of computers and emailing their grandkids turn to the library for instruction and access."
You see, this is personal for me. In 2003, I lost my job and was unemployed for six months. Because I didn't have an adequate Internet connection, I became a regular at the Elizabethtown Public Library precisely because of the free high-speed connection it offered. I used the computers there to search for jobs, e-mail my contacts, send resumes and fill out online applications. I know what it's like to rely on the library, and I am grateful that the library was there to provide a resource I didn't have at the time.
Now, seven years later, with unemployment in Lancaster County at about 8 percent, many people need the services a community library provides more than ever.
From a public financing perspective, it is the push and pull of priorities. In his testimony, Miller also noted that 60 percent of funding for libraries across Pennsylvania comes from local sources (municipalities, counties and school districts). The state provides 25 percent, with the balance coming from other sources such as grants and fundraising.
In 1999, he said, the Legislature put in place budgetary incentives for local governments to fund libraries, but those incentives have been stripped away. I agree with his assessment that if those incentives are put in place, adequately funded and made a priority, it would go a long way in alleviating the library funding crisis.
It might even keep our own Elizabethtown Public Library, which has become an anchor for our downtown, from closing for a week.