Carnegie Library copes with funding loss

By Thomas Smith

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is not in “immediate danger” of closing any of… The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is not in “immediate danger” of closing any of its branches, according to one of its administrators. But the organization is still seeking donations to help cover the $1 million in funding that won’t come through because the tuition tax failed.

Suzanne Thinnes, communication manager for the libraries, said late last week that the CLP is not in immediate danger of closing or merging any branches and is “in a community engagement process, and as of today we have 228 days to find long term solutions to the funding crisis.”

Thinnes said the library system is “working with the community and a public/private task force to sustain the library system.” Thinnes says that the CLP is committed to not closing any libraries at least until the end of the year, but that it needs the public’s help. She said people need to let their elected officials know how important the Carnegie library system is to them, and that the CLP will greatly rely on individual donations.

Her words came after City Council voted to postpone legislation that would have given $600,000 to bolster the suffering branches, and about a week after a letter from the library’s chairwoman to the mayor was released.

In the letter, Carnegie Library chairwoman Jacqui Fiske Lazo agreed with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl when he interpreted a funding agreement between the city and the Carnegie Library. Ravenstahl said that because the agreement was contingent upon the Fair Share Tax, the proposed and then-defeated 1 percent tax on students’ tuition, the libraries would not receive the $1 million pledged to them.

Lazo’s letter sides with Ravenstahl, though, saying that the library board “understood when your proposal to institute a post-secondary education privilege tax was withdrawn, the funding from those tax revenues committed to the Library … was also withdrawn.”

The proposed library closures are the same as they have been since at least November of last year and will not affect the Oakland branch. The branches facing closure are Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, Beechview and the West End, and the Carrick and Knoxville branches might be merged if adequate funding sources are not found, Thinnes said.

She said the criterion for choosing branches for possible closure had much to do with building condition, each branch’s service area, the number of customers using each branch and the availability of bus routes from closing areas to areas in which Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches will remain open.

She said the library system will continue to work with the mayor and City Council to find funding sources, and that it has done everything it can think of to cut expenses, cutting back its hours, making organizational changes, performing some services in house and increasing its efficiency by using self-check machines and allowing people to pay fines online.

The library system has been reaching out to the community by holding open forum meetings, one of which was held at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, on Dithridge Street, Monday. The next round of forums will begin in July. The dates and times have yet to be announced, but the system’s website,, will have the most recent information, Thinnes said.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, was on hand at Monday’s forum. He said that, unlike some of his colleagues, he does not view the library’s budget as a discretionary item. As the federal government reduces its responsibility in strictly nondiscretionary items — such as basic education, corrections, criminal justice and medicine — the library system has seen its funding cut. With Pennsylvania state revenues now around $1 billion, the only remaining way to balance the budget is to reduce expenses, Frankel said.

“We need to find a balance between fiscal responsibility and generating additional revenue. It’s not just about cutting spending all the time,” he said. Frankel suggested that the budget shortfalls could be made up by taxing tobacco products, other than cigarettes, and by taxing energy extraction for coal and Marcellus Shale gas, saying that Pennsylvania is the only state that taxes neither of these.

The only new source of revenue for Allegheny County’s library systems came in the form of tax revenue from casino gaming, with a 1 percent pledge, which Frankel says experts estimate will be about $1 million per year. This money would be split between the Allegheny County Library System and the Carnegie Library System.

Currently the CLP receives about 92 percent of its funding from the state and the Regional Asset District. RAD is the extra 1 percent sales tax that Allegheny county residents pay, half of which goes to “culturally significant” projects, such as Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the stadiums and museums. The CLP gets a portion of this RAD money, as well, according to RAD’s website,

Expenses are beginning to outweigh revenue. People are spending less money in the current economy,which means less money goes into the Carnegie library system through RAD, and the libraries are simultaneously being hit with increased business from patrons who are seeking to save money by using their free books, movies and internet, Thinnes said. She called the situation a “perfect storm.”

The library funding problem is not unique to Pittsburgh, with libraries in cities across the country suffering similar woes.

Nicole Swerhun, a facilitator for the CLP, stressed that “free to the people does not mean without cost.” When Andrew Carnegie donated the libraries, his idea was that he would provide the building, but the community must have a vested interest in keeping its library afloat, she said.

Maggie McFalls, the communications engagement coordinator for CLP said that her office is open if anyone would like to fill out a discussion guide, which is available on the library’s website. She says that the library would like as much feedback as possible before it moves forward with the next phase of its restructuring plan.

People who wish to donate their time or money to the library can do so by visiting their local branch or by visiting the CLP’s website,