Library tries to stay afloat
MOUNT CARMEL - The Mount Carmel Area Public Library serves the entire Mount Carmel Area School District, but receives sustained financial support from only one municipality - Mount Carmel Borough.
The lack of commitment from other municipalities within its service area is a large part of the library's continuing financial problems, librarian Vivian McCracken said.
There is much more involved than just an annual contribution, McCracken explained. The lack of municipal support seriously hampers the library's efforts to obtain competitive state grants for important projects.
Mount Carmel Borough levies a .25-mill library tax, Ed Cuff, borough manager explained. That tax nets the library approximately $5,000 per year. Regardless of how much the tax generates, the decision by borough council to enact the levy demonstrates the kind of municipal support the state likes to see, McCracken noted.
The Mount Carmel Area School District has also been making a significant donation to the library for more than four decades - $4,000 per year, McCracken said. She added that considering school districts have their own financial challenges, this annual expression of support is always appreciated.
Although other municipalities have occasionally made donations (usually in the $50 to $100 range), these contributions, while always happily received, do not help the library qualify for grants, McCracken said, because the state is looking for evidence of sustained support through a tax levy earmarked specifically for the library.
As an example of where the lack of municipal support hurts the library, McCracken pointed to the library's recent demolition of a dilapidated adjacent structure on Oak Street. The library took on that project out of necessity, she explained, Because of the rapidly deteriorating condition of that building, the library had an increasingly difficult time obtaining insurance coverage.
Northumberland County acquired ownership of the property through back taxes, and then transferred it to the library while forgiving the taxes, McCracken said. The library then had to borrow money to tear the building down. Had the library been able to demonstrate greater financial support from municipalities, it might have been in the running for state funds to help with the demolition and then develop the vacant lot into a green space.
McCracken said the library has about 7,000 registered patrons, and many of them do reside in Mount Carmel Township and Kulpmont.
McCracken stressed that the library tries very hard to maintain services, but increased expenses, including a jump in the minimum wage, caused it to eliminate hours on Wednesdays. Despite the Wednesday closure, the library still meets the state requirement for weekly hours of operation, she said.
Like practically all other public libraries in Pennsylvania, the Mount Carmel library has been hit hard by a drop in regular state aid. The $32,000 per year the library now receives is less than half of what it was getting from the state just a few years ago, McCracken remarked.
The memorial program has traditionally been a consistent source of operating revenue, but McCracken noted that the funds realized from this program are but a fraction of what they once were. "At one time, this was a major fundraiser for us," she explained, "but that was at a time when libraries were the only ones who sponsored memorial programs. Now many churches and other organizations do, too."
McCracken said every penny the library receives goes toward keeping the doors open. She is proud of what the staff accomplishes, noting that although the clerks are all part time, they go "above and beyond the call of duty." The library cannot afford any health care and retirement benefits, she said, not even for her. McCracken is the only full-time employee.
"We have as little waste as possible," she said. "We re-use and re-use things all the time." She stressed the library does what it can each day with the limited resources that are available. For example, the library was in dire need of new shelving space, but could not afford to purchase new shelves. McCracken waited 12 hours at a public auction at the former Bishop Hafey High School in Hazleton to buy used shelves that were in very good condition. The shelves cost only $65 each, a small fraction of what they would have cost if purchased new.
Because of its limited financial resources, the library now has to be careful when buying new books, McCracken noted. "We can't buy the latest books as soon as they are published," she said. "We have asked some of our best readers to donate books, and many have done that. These donations have helped in maintaining our collection." The library has been forced to limit the number of children's books purchased, but it does maintain six to 10 copies of each book that is on the school district's summer reading list.
"We do not necessarily follow the best sellers list when it comes to choosing materials," McCracken explained. "We listen to our patrons, and we work hard to tailor our services to what the community needs."
The library's annual fund drive, also an important revenue source, is coming up soon, McCracken noted, and in addition to the contributions from local patrons, the library is trying to reach out to former residents who want to help their hometown.
McCracken is passionate about the continued importance of public libraries. Even in the digital age, the Mount Carmel Area Public Library serves people of all ages in a comfortable setting, she noted, whether on the coldest day of winter or the hottest day of summer. The library offers services that can't be obtained elsewhere, such its extensive microfilm collection of newspapers which are as a major genealogy source for both residents and visitors. The best part is, she said, library services are free so each patron has equal access to materials.
McCracken believes everyone - individuals, businesses and municipalities - should consider donations to a public library to be an important investment in the community itself.