Howard: Cardholders should shoulder Carnegie Library’s budget deficit

By Giles Howard

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will raise fines” on overdue materials this January in an… The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will raise fines” on overdue materials this January in an effort to offset its budget deficit. This latest development in a months-long saga is just one part of the institution’s attempt to stay afloat in the face of a $6 million budget deficit.

Technically a nonprofit, the Carnegie Library system receives 93 percent of its funding from the government and is working closely with the city to raise funds. City Council allocated $600,000 to the Carnegie Library in order to keep all of the nonprofit’s 19 branches open next year and — most importantly for Pitt students — $1 million of the revenue from the proposed Fair Share Tax is intended for the libraries.

But the city’s solutions are nothing more than short-term fixes and, as long as they approach the solution through the typical nonprofit box, it is unlikely that the city will ever come up with a longterm solution to the Library’s budget deficit.

After all, the $600,000 was a one-time payment that came from the city’s fuel fund, and it appears unlikely that the Fair Share Tax will make it out of City Council this session. Instead of clinging to its nonprofit status and asking the government to bail it out, the library should continue on the route of raising fines and charging those who use and overuse the libraries.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the library raise fines as the sole means of supporting itself, but instead that it turn into a for-profit business that charges patrons for a monthly or yearly membership. As Gordon Gekko said in the movie “Wall Street,” “What’s worth doing is worth doing for money.”

Such a for-profit library system would also guarantee that people who use the libraries — myself included — would be the ones who paid for the libraries’ existence rather than shifting that burden to university students and city residents who aren’t cardholders in the Carnegie Library system.

Acting to trim costs in October, the Carnegie Library’s board of trustees moved in the right direction by voting to close the five branches of the system that receive the least traffic and reducing hours in the remaining branches. Eliminating services in order to ensure longterm solvency was the responsible thing to do, but hundreds of individuals organized community groups and turned out at public meetings to oppose the service cuts.

Protesting the closure of their libraries, these individuals and community groups repeatedly asked the city and city taxpayers to step in and pay for the continuation of their community library while never offering to pay for it themselves.

Of course, I understand their argument and recognize that libraries are important facets of any community, and it is for just this reason that we should not ask others to shoulder our burden and pay for our libraries. Such necessary community institutions should be funded by and be accountable to the community members they serve.

If the library-card-holding citizens of Beechview, Lawrenceville, West End, Hazlewood, Carrick and Knoxville were customers and shareholders in their local libraries rather than the beneficiaries of Carnegie charity and government largess, they would have greater control over the future and quality of their local libraries. Instead, these individuals are waiting for the government to solve their problem.

But it is the libraries’ involvement with the government and its status as a nonprofit that partially explains its dire financial situation today.

Because it is a nonprofit, the library’s board of trustees meets in secret and is accountable neither to its patrons nor to the taxpayers that fund it.

Because Andrew Carnegie paid for the library’s construction and the government paid for its operation, Pittsburghers believe that they are not only entitled to a library system but also that they are not financially responsible for its existence.

Rather than raise new taxes and inject new government dollars into the Carnegie Library system, we should act to make the board of trustees accountable to the library’s patrons and make the patrons financially responsible for the library’s operation.

Admittedly, such a for-profit library would be a bold move, but it would empower Pittsburghers to voluntarily decide where their money goes instead of relying on the government to take that money by force and allocate it for “the public good.” Bold as it is, I would suggest that voluntary participation in the free market historically produced greater public good than any government spending ever did.

It might even be able to create a thriving and solvent library system where the government was only able to create a deficit-ridden mess.

Continue the conversation at Giles’s blog, http://www.gilesbhoward.com/blog/, or e-mail Giles at [email protected]