Find hope in your local library

Originally posted on the Post Gazette Op-Ed, January 10, 2017, written by Marilyn Jenkins.

As we gear up to confront the new challenges of 2017, it’s all too easy to focus on what needs to be fixed, rather than what is working well.

It’s been 25 years since Frank Lucchino, then Allegheny County controller, issued a special report: “A Quiet Crisis: Libraries in Allegheny County.” This nearly 100-page document offered an in-depth examination of Allegheny County’s libraries and the problems faced by each of these many independent institutions.

The dawn of the “Information Age” threatened to leave libraries behind. Funding was scarce. In fact, Allegheny County ranked at the bottom nationally for per-capita dollars spent on libraries. Roofs were leaking, paint was peeling and HVAC systems were failing.

The report concluded that Allegheny County’s libraries needed to identify a stable source of operating support and establish a broad-based organization to take advantage of potential economies of scale. Libraries accepted the call to action and banded together.

Twenty-five years later, the Allegheny County Library Association, with the cooperation of its 46 member libraries, has met the challenges identified in “A Quiet Crisis” in ways that couldn’t have been imagined in the early ’90s.

With strong (and loud) backing from county residents, library service was recognized as an essential community need. When state legislation created the Allegheny Regional Asset District, libraries advocated for a piece of RAD’s 1 percent sales-tax revenue. In fact, since 1995, the RAD board has awarded nearly one-third of its funds to support community libraries. That support has resulted in widespread facility renovations, increased service hours, expanded programming and state-of-the-art technology.

In the early ’90s, it was considered revolutionary to connect libraries via fax machines. Today, all 73 service locations across the county are connected through a 10-gigabyte-per-second fiber ring supporting 3,500 networked devices, a shared operating system, high-speed internet and universal Wi-Fi. There is a centralized automated sorting system for movement of materials, self-check-out options and access to downloadable books, videos and audio recordings. ACLA libraries freely share their resources countywide across municipal boundaries.

ACLA libraries also are at the epicenter of shifts in education and workforce development. Today you’ll find programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, “maker” centers, media labs, tech clinics, parenting workshops, kindergarten-readiness classes, coding workshops, self-publishing support and countless other opportunities. Libraries help prepare students for first-time job success, assist job-seekers with resumes and placement, provide basic skills training and support small-business development.

While it is important to celebrate their success during the past 25 years, ACLA and member libraries will continue to look ahead. Constant changes in technology, pressure on the RAD to fund a wider range of assets, the growing demands of residents for current information in new formats and the continued need to diversify library funding are just a few of the issues with which we’re dealing. Fortunately, Allegheny County’s libraries now are building on a solid foundation of collaboration.

Our libraries took “A Quiet Crisis” a quarter century ago and turned it into a model of regional cooperation. It is remarkable what can happen when committed individuals share a common vision, roll up their sleeves and work together.

So, if you get discouraged in the days and weeks ahead as the new year unfolds, just pull out your library card and remember what’s possible. And if you don’t have a library card — make getting one your easiest resolution for 2017!

Just visit any local library or to find out how.

Marilyn Jenkins is executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association.