Our View | Local libraries worth preserving, supporting

Jennifer Cifelli remembers the man standing in line behind her one day at the Centre County Library in Bellefonte.

As Cifelli recalls, he told the person behind the counter that he was homeless, and wondered what information the library might have that could help him.

Another library patron overheard the conversation and approached the man, said he had previously been homeless, and offered to show the man materials about finding work and housing.

“That’s what libraries do,” said Cifelli, communications director for the Centre County Library system. “They serve as places where people come together and interact in settings that are full of resources.”

But it’s no secret that many libraries are struggling to keep their doors open, even as the demand for their materials and services grows and shifts to digital options.

Officials at Schlow Centre Region Library last week shocked patrons with the news that budget challenges may force them to shut down for a week next year.

That followed on the heels of the announcement that the Centre County system may close its East Penns Valley Area Branch in Millheim. That final decision will be made this week, but the prognosis for keeping the branch open is bleak.

The county system operates “on a very small budget,” running five locations on about $800,000 annually, Cifelli said.

That’s despite offering programs and materials for kids, teens, working adults and seniors, and despite serving a clientele that grows by more than 11 percent each year, she said.

Libraries have watched state funding shrink in recent years to about $50 million in 2013-14. That’s down from about $75 million less than a decade ago.

“We won’t regain the state and federal funding we’ve lost,” Cifelli said.

So, libraries rely heavily on local support to stay open.

They get some money from the municipalities they serve, based on the number of residents who stop in or access services online. That would include not only the borough or township in which a library is located, but neighboring areas it also serves.

Centre County Library tracks visitors by municipality of residents and gets about 50 cents per person per year from those local governments — not much, but it helps.

And library leaders have become fundraisers and advocate recruiters.

They host events to raise money. And they urge their patrons to support their services financially, and also to spread the word about the value a library brings.

“We’re really focused on fundraising, at every branch and system level,” Cifelli said. “If you use the library as a patron, please support the library.”

For those communities fortunate enough to have libraries, such centers are more than places to borrow books.

Schlow is the physical and cultural anchor for downtown State College, hosting activities for residents of all ages and income levels in addition to providing resources on a variety of platforms and covering myriad topics.

Others do the same on a smaller scale, while services such as the bookmobile take library wares to more rural regions.

Those living in communities with libraries — State College, Bellefonte, Philipsburg, Centre Hall and, for now, Millheim — can help preserve those assets in a number of ways, Cifelli said.

They can attend fundraisers, and pledge financial support. They can call their local and state elected officials.

One way to support your local library is to simply use its materials, Cifelli said. Stop by in person to read a newspaper, listen to a CD or surf the Internet. You can even access a digital library book on your e-reader.

“The funding we do receive is calculated based on how much the library is used,” Cifelli said.

“We’re working to get people to advocate for the library,” she said. “That’s how we’re trying to bridge the gap.”

And the gap keeps growing.

The final nail has not been driven into the coffin of the East Penns Valley branch of the Centre County Library. Someone could step forward to save that asset, but time is waning.

Other local libraries could some day face similar fates, pushed to the brink by budget challenges, unless the people who use and appreciate those libraries step forward to help.

Libraries are worth preserving and supporting. Let’s all do our part.