Allegheny County library systems look to cooperate

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The topic is libraries, but no one is being shushed.

In fact, just the opposite.

Starting last month, the Allegheny County Library Association and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh began what the organizations anticipate will be a six-month, countywide conversation about the future of library service. Both groups hope the discussion will include input from the people who use the county's 45 library systems and the communities where they are based.

"The question is, how can we create a comprehensive 21st century library service to best serve the citizens of Allegheny County?" said Diana Bucco, vice president of the Buhl Foundation, which is facilitating the discussion.

That question is already being asked. A website -- located at www.countycitylibraries.org -- has been launched to explain the initiative and to obtain the ideas and opinions of community members.

Library users are asked to complete by Feb. 14 a survey that poses questions such as what libraries can do to support communities and patrons and what ideas should be considered for funding and structuring library services in the community.

The ideas are expected to build on some of the collaborative initiatives already in place, such as the Electronic Information Network, or eiNetwork, that provides city and county libraries with their technology structure. The libraries also started in recent years a system to buy e-books as a county rather than as individual libraries.

A county-city library service panel, chaired by Buhl Foundation President Fred Thieman and including representatives from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Library Association, will guide the discussion, considering ideas presented through the survey and through community meetings local libraries will organize.

Starting in March, the panel's plan is to present ideas and then gather feedback, with a report due this summer compiling those ideas and the feedback they received. The report will be considered by the library systems and their boards, the Regional Asset District, elected officials and the public.

"What we are trying to do through this process is come up with a plan for how to retool library service and make it more meaningful for current day users," said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association.

What they are not trying to do is close libraries.

"It's trying to figure out ways to retain local service and maximize their ability to serve the public," she said.

A few years ago, the closure of libraries in Allegheny County did seem a possibility. In 2009, Carnegie Library officials announced they plan to close branches in the city neighborhoods of Beechview, Hazelwood, Lawrenceville and the West End, and also merge or move the libraries in Carrick, Knoxville and Mount Washington.

The crisis was averted after Harrisburg directed to the libraries a portion of revenues from legalized table games. In 2011, city voters agreed to a special library property tax, which in 2013 contributed $3.9 million to Carnegie Library coffers, said Mary Frances Cooper, president and director of the city system.

Allegheny County libraries annually receive about $55 million in funding from multiple sources, including the Regional Asset District. Yet future funding continues to be a concern, Ms. Jenkins said.

One reason the libraries are starting their county-wide conversation is to make sure they are good stewards of the public funds they receive, Ms. Cooper said.

"I think, at the end of the day, we're trying to figure out how we make the best use of the public money which supports libraries, and also what service the people that we service really want and need from their libraries," she said.

Now, as libraries have become more than just a place to check out a novel or flip through a magazine, is a good time to do so, the library leaders said.

Libraries have become destinations for people to register for health insurance, to draft resumes and search for jobs, among other activities, Ms. Jenkins said. Many libraries also offer an array of programs, such as classes training people how to use iPads or other new technologies.

"Libraries are very, very busy, as busy as they ever were," Ms. Cooper said. "But it's a little different than maybe it was 20 years ago."

To Ms. Bucco, "what's most exciting" about the county-wide conversation on libraries is that "there's a recognition that technology and consumers are creating a potential for some significant changes in the delivery of library services."

She described the six-month process as a "proactive step" that the libraries are taking in deciding what their role will be in the county in the 21st century. "To do that in the absence of a crisis is very forward thinking on the part of the leadership," Ms. Bucco said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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