Local libraries keep up with changing technology, funding challenges

August 23, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Halie King, 3, left, daughter of Cami Hulin and Brad King of Upper St. Clair, uses one of the many playaway viewers while Malea Bode, 9, daughter of Suzie and Steve Bode of Peters Township, shows Halie one of the new LeapPad3s purchased by Peters Township Public Library, which has gone digital in many areas for its patrons. Order a Print
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From left, sisters Juliana, Grace and Lauren Lamb of Peters Township get lively as they play a game on a computer at one of the video game stations of the Teen Room at Peters Township Public Library Tuesday. Order a Print
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Jessica Monaco of Peters Township relaxes in a sunlit corner of the local library, reading a book on one of the library’s Kindles. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Stephanie Shultz of Peters Township checks out several books with the new self-checkout scanner at Peters Township Community Library. Order a Print

Modern libraries are much different places than they once were, or what we imagined them to be: quiet buildings filled with books and card catalogs, with an occasional “Quiet, please” from the librarian.

Providing books was the primary function for libraries over the past few centuries, but their offerings have evolved with the digital age to meet the changing needs of their patrons.

Visit the 16 libraries in Washington and Greene counties, and you’ll be able to check out print and digital materials, music and DVDs.

POWER Library e-resources (a service of Pennsylvania’s public libraries, school libraries and the state library) provide access to thousands of full-text periodical articles, newspapers, photographs, pictures, maps and reference material for Pennsylvanians of all ages.

Another example of e-resources: Zinio, an online service that allows patrons to download digital copies of popular magazines to their computers, tablets or mobile devices.

Libraries in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties operate under the WAGGIN system, a unified system that has resulted in the creation of a singular online catalog for all libraries. WAGGIN makes it easier for libraries to share resources and enables patrons to use one card to access materials at all participating libraries.

“When it comes to technology resources, an individual library has a difficult time providing those resources on its own. It’s really the unified consortium that allows us to bring those resources to the residents in three counties,” said Katy Pretz, librarian at Flenniken Library in Carmichaels.

People still go to the library for books (nearly 70 percent of patrons visit libraries to access free reading material, according to Glenn Miller of the Pennsylvania Library Association), but libraries now serve as community centers, meeting places and technology hubs.

According to a 2012 study by the American Library Association, more than 62 percent of libraries reported they are the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.

“People still check out a lot of books; our circulation is higher than ever, especially in the children’s department. But we are so much more than books,” said Peggy Sang, librarian at the Frank Sarris Public Library in Canonsburg.

Case in point: Sarris Library offers free access to an online service called BrainFuse, which provides career assistance that includes live interview coaching, résumé writing assistance, job search help and an adult learning center that offers test preparation (including the General Educational Development and citizenship tests) and tutors.

“It’s a remarkable service for people searching for employment opportunities, and it doesn’t cost a thing. Digital services like that are a big part of what the library provides,” said Sang.

Individual libraries, too, are adapting physically to the digital age.

The two-story, 30,000-square-foot Sarris Library is equipped with wireless Internet and computers and includes meeting rooms that can be rented for private parties and business functions, study and conference rooms and a genealogy room. The children and teen section features storytime and activity rooms, and age-appropriate books, furniture and technology.

“We are constantly making improvements to try to meet the needs of the community and to let people know that there’s a place for them to go to access resources and to connect with the community,” said Sang.

The other libraries throughout Washington and Greene counties, including Peters Township, offer similar technological amenities.

Built in 1999 and featuring an open, soaring rotunda, the Peters Township Public Library’s physical space has undergone significant renovations – including the reconfiguration of the second-floor nonfiction area.

New seating was installed to provide space for groups and individuals to work or study, and 90-inch library shelves were replaced with 66-inch shelves to allow more natural light into the space.

Peters Township Library contains more than 136,000 items including books on CD, eReaders, Playaways, Xbox and Wii consoles and video games, LeapPad electronic platforms, e-audio books, Finch robots and a self-check-out machine.

Other electronic resources include IndieFlix, which offers more than 4,500 award-winning independent films, Freegal Music, an online site that offers downloadable songs and streaming music, and Freegal Movies & TV.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a librarian,” said library director Pier Lee. “This is a very busy library, and we’re very fortunate to have many donors and people throughout the community who realize how important libraries are and give generously.”

While libraries continue to provide people with digital materials and skills they need today, it doesn’t come cheaply.

In 2011, 23 states reported cuts in state funding to public libraries.

Pennsylvania Library Association’s Miller said Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation in per capita spending on libraries, but ranks 47th in local government funding.

“Pennsylvania libraries do pretty well when you look at the national level, but we get clobbered at the local government funding level. We have to address that at some point,” said Miller.

Kristin Frazier, librarian at Burgettstown Library, said it’s a juggling act to provide services and resources that library patrons demand while worrying about budget constraints.

“We need libraries. Where else can you preserve a wealth of information in a location that’s accessible to everyone? I worry that people won’t realize how important we are until we’re not around,” she said.

Still, Frazier is pleased at the amount of services and programs Burgettstown Library provides, including the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame historical center. Specifically, she mentioned GaleCourse, a district systemwide program which provides six-week online classes, and a borough resident who recently used the site to complete a course in medical transcription.

Miller said Pennsylvania stands at about one-third less in overall state dollars since 2007 – $53 million now compared to $75 million seven year ago, when it was ranked third in state support of public libraries. State funding has remained level for the past two years.

“Individually, libraries do a great job of tapping into their communities and raising dollars through fundraising events and activities,” said Miller. “But kids need library services now more than ever, and it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish not to invest in our libraries.”

Chartiers-Houston Community Library recently lost more than $25,000 in funding from Chartiers-Houston School District, and a library staff member who did not want to be identified said the library staff and volunteers are working hard to raise funds to keep operating.

A recent mail campaign sent to residents of Chartiers Township and Houston Borough has helped.

“Individuals have been very generous,” she said. “We’re frugal. We monitor how we use the air conditioning, we turn out lights, that kind of thing. One of the biggest contributors to keeping our library going is our volunteers. We rely so much, probably too much, on them.”

As libraries change, so do the roles of librarians, said Frazier.

Increasingly, library workers find themselves assisting with issues including basic computer skills, introduction to Internet use and general software use.

“We’re more instrumental in leading patrons to the right place in accessing the information. “We’re geared toward helping to direct them on the computer to right websites, helping them become more self-sufficient in terms of viewing information and opening them up to a wide variety of sources,” said Frazier.

Monday: Finch robots at Peters Township Public Library teach children the basics of computer programming.

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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