Dennis Blevins

Dennis Blevins lives in Drumore Township. He is a retired information technology manager.

Events over recent months have raised quite a bit of controversy over the appropriateness of materials in the collections and programs offered by some of the public (and school) libraries in our county.

Most of this controversy has been generated by forces aligned with the far-right factions of our country’s current political divide. Whether one agrees with either side of this divide or how those beliefs should affect the libraries within our area is not the point of this column.

Simply, many folks, including some elected officials, are misinformed or unaware of the statutes set forth in Pennsylvania’s law — Title 24 — that govern the establishment, operation and funding of all the free public libraries in the state.

Much of the following information has been put forth previously in response to ongoing events and controversies. But let’s put it in one concise list:

1. To be a public library, it must provide materials and services to all persons within its service area — irrespective of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.

2. To be a “free” library (and receive funding from the state), it cannot charge for the use of basic services — loaning of materials in its collection, the dissemination of knowledge by its staff, etc. It may charge for the use of rooms, providing specialized programs, renting DVDs, passport preparation assistance and some other services.

3. It cannot promote or support any specific political entity.

4. The materials held in its collection are to be determined by library staff and its own governing body (board of trustees/directors). This cannot be explicitly directed by any outside parties, elected officials or appointed officials.

5. The elected officials of the local municipalities in the library’s service area are not required to financially support the library. They may provide “donations” to the library from their general funds.

6. If enough qualified voters within a municipality petition the elected officials of that municipality to have the library funded by a local tax, those officials must place that request on the ballot for the population to vote on in the next election cycle.

So, let’s bring this all into focus in relation to the current happenings in our area. First, let’s review the state of funding for all of the libraries in the county — excepting the Manheim Township Public Library, which in its entirety (building, collection and employees) is a function provided by that township’s government.

The state annually distributes funds from its budgeting process to all public libraries. Locally, Lancaster County receives those funds and passes them on to the Library System of Lancaster County. The system provides the backbone services (electronic collection catalog, internet technology services, interlibrary sharing and transfer of materials and bookmobile) for the member libraries. Through a defined formula, those monies are divided and distributed to the 14 independent libraries of the system.

These state funds generally provide for 20% to 25% of the monies needed to fund each library’s operations (employee salaries, collection materials, building acquisition and maintenance, etc.).

The directors or trustees of each library go to the governing body in each municipality in their service area and report to them the activities of that library over the past year: how their constituents used that library (number of visits, programs attended, materials circulated), and the financial standing of the library.

The governing boards are thanked for their past financial support (donations) and then asked to please consider donating to their library in the coming year.

These aggregated municipal donations typically provide another 15% to 20% of the funding needed to operate that library.

The remaining 55% to 65% of the funds needed to keep a library open each year must then be raised by the library itself. This is done by “Friends of the Library” volunteer groups holding events such as used book sales, chicken barbecues, bake sales and yard sales. Other funds can come from local patron and business donations and fundraisers such as ExtraGive. This method of funding requires a great deal of effort by the library directors and boards to be put toward fundraising, rather than directly serving their patrons.

It must be evident to you now that a loss of any of these local municipality discretionary funds — the “donations” — creates a large impact on the viability of your local library. When municipal leaders withhold their donations, they are exerting political pressure on a public resource that is vital to residents of their community. That pressure may come from their own personal agendas or in response to issues, real or orchestrated, brought forth by vocal outside groups.

There are only two ways to replace the loss of the municipal discretionary donations — enact a “library tax” or increase personal donations from all who believe their library is essential.

Having a library tax is a long-term solution, yet is likely not viable, because “tax” is a four-letter word in our area — even though this approach is used in many of our surrounding counties and states. It would be a very small millage rate added to county tax invoices.

On the other hand, increasing personal donations would have an immediate impact.

Unfortunately, out of the tens of thousands in the county who use the public libraries on a regular basis and depend on the libraries for materials for their families and educational development, only a very, very small percentage donate to their library.

To those who do not contribute: Please do so, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. And, above all, make your beliefs and desires known to your local elected officials on a regular basis.

As we are currently experiencing with current events, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

If the “silent majority” continues to be silent about what’s happening, it will be aiding the destruction of the freedoms that our Constitution provides for all of us.

Dennis Blevins lives in Drumore Township. He is a retired information technology manager.

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