On a Tuesday evening in October in the Duquesne branch of the Carnegie Library of McKeesport, a lone teen was hanging out while the librarian worked at her computer.
A broken clock on the wall was stuck at a few minutes before 2 o’clock.
It was quiet at the library — some might even say too quiet.
Tucked away in the community’s elementary school and until recently open only eight hours a week, the library branch in this Mon Valley community sometimes struggles to attract patrons.
Since Oct. 31, library officials are finally — though barely — meeting state minimum standards by having the branch be open 20 hours a week. The library’s director says they are working to get the word out about the services and programs they offer.
On this evening, though, Duquesne teen Cristian Davis was the sole patron, playing video games on the computer. He couldn’t check out any books because of the fines he owed.
He said he enjoys coming here when there’s nothing to do outside.
“Most of the time it’s chill, you know, come here. There’s a lot of books, a lot of options. You know, even there are some interesting books on the shelves. Really. Just come here, hang out, chill out, you know, have fun,” he said.
Some libraries in Allegheny County are open 60 to 70 hours per week. Duquesne’s branch — part of just one of 46 separate library systems in the county — highlights the disparities in local library staffing, finances, programming and services. WESA and PublicSource have chronicled some of those disparities and how they have been fueled by the region’s fragmentation and funding formulas that push Regional Asset District [RAD] tax revenues to libraries that have higher circulation and more local funding.
However, more funds are poised to soon flow to libraries in some of the county’s most distressed communities.
RAD Board Vice Chair Dan Griffin said a library “can be a resume center, it can be a community area, it can be a senior center, it can be a kids’ library center, it can be an after-school study center, it can be all of the above.”
That, he added, is why libraries are so vital to disadvantaged communities. “There’s a huge differential between people who have access to high-speed internet, people who have access to good libraries, etcetera, and those who don’t.”
From a castle to a single room
Duquesne’s facility may need more than dollars to bring back the bustle of years past.
“I feel like it would be nice for the kids if it was open more. And for the adults,” said Kierha Crumity, who, along with her children, was in the library one day this summer to use the printer. She often ends up driving to the Carnegie Library of Homestead when Duquesne’s facility isn’t open, she said.
The Duquesne branch’s hours, its location in a school and a slow rebound from pandemic changes may be conspiring to limit its effectiveness in a community of high need, where half of its children live in poverty.
The community’s library wasn’t always an underused room in its school.
The city was originally given a Carnegie library, which opened in 1904 to great fanfare. A newspaper article from that day noted a “monster parade” with a crowd of 20,000 people in honor of the library’s dedication. The Pittsburgh Daily Post called it the greatest day in the history of Duquesne.
Like other castle-like early Carnegie libraries — similar to those still standing in Braddock and Homestead — it was also home to a pool, gymnasium, auditorium and more.
The building was torn down in 1968, and Duquesne was without a library for some time. McKeesport’s library system opened a branch here in the early 2000s.
The Duquesne branch isn’t always dead quiet, said Vincent D’Alesio, the director of the Carnegie Library of McKeesport. The library’s program coordinator has also done some “crafternoon” activities to attract more families to the branch, he said.
“It’s a little bit easier in summertime,” he said. “We’re able to have … more daytime hours because we can’t have the branch open during school hours, during the school year.”
Balancing the books
Libraries in poorer communities tend to have less funding, translating into smaller workforces and shorter hours.
Citing disparities earlier this year, major local library funder RAD announced in June that it will push millions in additional funding toward libraries serving the county’s most impoverished areas. RAD distributes proceeds from the 1% countywide sales tax add-on.
RAD’s new $5 million Transformative Community Library Fund aims to aid places like Duquesne.
D’Alesio said McKeesport’s library system is considering an application to the fund. To date, though, only the Braddock Carnegie Library has applied to the fund, for aid to its ongoing renovation effort. RAD officials say they’ve been having informal talks with libraries and are hopeful they will be distributing money soon.
RAD Executive Director Rich Hudic said the slow flow of applications isn’t worrisome.
“Our board is looking for proposals that will have transformational impact for their communities. That requires time and due diligence to make sure the projects are as strong as they can be,” he said.
The new RAD fund isn’t meant to subsidize library operations, which are already largely backed by the sales tax. RAD expects to steer nearly $35 million to libraries in the county next year. (Of that, $27.3 million is slated for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, some of which is spent on services shared with suburban libraries.)
In addition to more funds from RAD, the Allegheny County Library Association [ACLA] has also shifted a formula twice in recent years to push more funds toward libraries in poor communities.
ACLA, a nonprofit that provides services to all of the libraries in the county, has adopted a 2023 budget distributing $6.8 million in RAD funds to suburban library systems. It contemplates using a formula that would give each library a base amount, plus payments based on capacity and performance, but would reserve 15% of the total for distribution among 16 libraries serving distressed communities.
That 15% is up from this year’s budget, in which 10% of the funds are divided among libraries serving distressed populations. In 2019, just 5% of the RAD funds were allocated based on distress.
“It is our hope that this will help those communities to build capacity to continue to provide the library services that we all deserve, regardless of where we live,” ACLA said in a statement in response to questions.
In October, the Duquesne branch advertised to hire a part-time clerk, for $10 an hour.
We’re hiring! pic.twitter.com/htOs66Lgh8— Carnegie Library of McKeesport (@mckeeslibrary) October 17, 2022
Staffing problems bedevil many of the 457 libraries that the state helps to fund, as rising wages pull workers elsewhere, said Susan Banks, a state deputy secretary of education who is also commissioner of libraries. “It’s also a problem sometimes with the governance of the library agencies who don’t see pay for library staff as a priority.”
Libraries in struggling communities need to do the hard work of engaging with the people who aren’t using their services, Banks continued. That needs to be “robust and meaningful communication efforts, in person” she added.
“It’s not easy,” said Banks. “But it’s the only way.”
Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering poverty, social services and affordable housing for WESA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-697-2953.
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @richelord.
90.5 WESA’s parent organization, Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, is among the organizations that receive RAD funding.
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