Allegheny County's 45 independent libraries face the dual challenge of increased demand for their services, as well as increased competition for funding.
They can better meet both challenges by creating one entity responsible for centralized services, members of the County-City Library Service Panel said in a report issued Tuesday, among other recommendations.
The report did not, however, recommend consolidating all the county’s libraries into one system.
"Consolidating everything centrally, it just doesn't make logical sense to me at this point in time, given the unique relationship each library has with its community," said Mary Frances Cooper, president and director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Instead, she said, her board and the board of the Allegheny County Library Association will consider a recommendation concerning the library divisions that already provided centralized services, such as technology and movement of materials from library to library. The panel suggests that these divisions — the Allegheny County Library Association, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-District Services and the eiNetwork — be integrated into a single entity.
The report also calls for funds to be allocated to support the centralized services, and then to allow individual libraries to opt into additional centralized services if they choose.
As they consider the recommendations, library board members are facing something of a deadline. According to the panel report, the county’s libraries face a total cumulative deficit of $7.8 million by 2018.
“I think the real message is that the library community and its supporters need to sit up and take notice and make some plans, very soon, to proactively head off what looks to be a significant funding gap," said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association.
The library service panel, established in July 2013, began its official meetings in January to "take a fresh look at libraries" in an environment of increased competition for funding, as well as challenges and opportunities posed by technology changes, said Fred Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation and chairman of the panel.
The panel, in the course of putting together its report, met with library leaders and staff, municipal officials and library users, he said. Among the panel's other recommendations are that mandatory standards, such as how many hours the library is opened, be established for library service in the county, and that new funding sources be identified.
The recommendations will be considered by the county association and the Pittsburgh Carnegie system boards.
Mr. Thieman said the report was optimistic about the future of libraries in Allegheny County, which in 2013 saw more than 8 million visits and 10 million items circulated.
He said discussions about the future of the county’s libraries are not conversations about managing decline.
"The report is really all about how to preserve a jewel," he said.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.