By Marilyn Jenkins
Allegheny County Library Association
We are fortunate to have community libraries throughout Allegheny County which provide residents of all ages with valuable resources. Many of those who have not visited a library in the past decade or so, may wonder, “Why do we still need libraries?”
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 report offered an in-depth discussion on the state of Allegheny County’s libraries and the problems each of the independent institutions faced. 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. Rooves were leaking, paint was peeling, and HVAC systems were failing.
The report concluded that Allegheny County’s libraries needed to identify a new 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 (ACLA), 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 (ARAD), libraries advocated for a piece of the 1% sales tax revenue. In fact, since 1995 the ARAD 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 tools.
In the early ‘90s it was considered revolutionary to connect libraries via re-built fax machines. Today, all 73 service locations across the County are connected through a 10Gbps 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 options, and access to downloadable books, videos and audios for all residents. ACLA libraries freely share their resources countywide across municipal boundaries.
ACLA libraries are at the epicenter of shifts in education and workforce development. Today you’ll find STEM programs, Maker space 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 the success during the last 25 years, ACLA and its Member Libraries will continue to face challenges as we move into the future. Constant changes in technology, pressure on the ARAD to fund a wider range of assets, the growing demands of residents for current information and new formats and the continued need to diversify library funding are just a few of the issues that remain. However, now libraries are building on the strong foundation of countywide cooperation that has been established.
I encourage everyone to stop by and experience what your local library has to offer. Whether you are looking for reading materials, children’s programs, job placement support, or even a place to get away, visit any local library or go to www.aclalibraries.org to find out more.