The Allegheny Regional Asset District will push millions in additional funding toward libraries serving the county’s most impoverished areas, the agency’s board announced Thursday. 

A new $5 million Transformative Community Library Fund, to be spent over four years, will help libraries that serve distressed areas to plan improvements, amid a push for more effective collaborations to reduce administrative burdens.

“The communities that most need libraries may have less access to them,” said RAD board Secretary/Treasurer Sylvia Fields. She added that short staffing often hamstrings libraries’ community service. “Library directors and their staff are oftentimes consumed by administrative duties.”

RAD is a major funder of Allegheny County’s 46 separate library systems — the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and 45 suburban systems — which have disparate levels of funding, physical spaces, staffing and programming.

The Clairton Public Library plans to move into a new space that is under construction. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

The Allegheny County Library Association characterizes 16 of the county’s suburban libraries as serving distressed communities, based on poverty rates.

Fields called RAD’s commitment an “unprecedented investment” shortly before the board at its quarterly meeting voted to amend the 2022 budget to draw $5 million from reserves for the new fund.

The money need not be shared evenly across the four-year period. It can be distributed rapidly or slowly, depending on the applications received. RAD staff will work with the libraries to craft their plans and applications.

WESA and PublicSource reported last month on the disparate finances and needs of the dozens of separate library systems in Allegheny County. Among the findings:

  • 10% of the funding flowing from the RAD tax to suburban libraries is distributed based on poverty rates, with the rest allocated based on factors including local contributions, circulation and use of computers and wi-fi.
  • More than three times as much RAD money flows to the 19-branch CLP than to all 45 suburban libraries combined.
  • CLP has offered to share some of its expertise with suburban libraries, but acceptance of those offers has been uneven, and collaboration currently isn’t mandatory
  • Officials believe funding concerns will eventually force more shared services, though wholesale mergers appear unlikely in the near future.
  • State funding to libraries has been flat for more than a decade and runs less than one-sixth of what Ohio gives to its libraries.

RAD has been pushing smaller libraries to cooperate more on back-office functions, either with the 19-branch CLP or through ACLA. Fields said RAD will “look forward to having all libraries enroll in these programs.”

“It’s something that’s really, really important to us to bring our libraries in distressed communities to a higher level of service to their communities,” said Dusty Elias Kirk, the RAD board chair, at the board meeting.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Kate Giammarise is a reporter for WESA focusing on poverty, social services and affordable housing, and can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.

90.5 WESA’s parent organization, Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, is among the organizations that receive RAD funding.  

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...

Kate Giammarise

Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy for WESA, and can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.