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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Funding History of our Public Library System

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, March 22, 2015

Andrew Carnegie is the largest benefactor for public libraries worldwide providing $ 56 million to build 2,509 libraries between 1881 and 1919.  In the U.S., every state but Alaska, Delaware, and Rhode Island received at least one Carnegie Library building.


There was no official name for Carnegie’s program.  It started with libraries in towns associated with his steel industry with approvals coming directly from him, and continued with his secretary approving all buildings after 1904.


While he did not require that library buildings contain his name, he is today remembered for his “library connection.”


Carnegie’s contribution has been wonderful for libraries, but there is a misconception that the Carnegie Foundation continues to fund the public library --- and that is not true.


Over the span of my library career, I have been asked many times about the money we receive from Carnegie, and I explain that the last check our library cashed from Andrew Carnegie was in the fall of 1901 just before our building was opened to the public.


Library funding varies from state-to-state in the U.S.  Ohio’s first library was formed in 1796, and the Dayton Library was the first library funded by public funds a decade later.


Throughout the 19th century, Ohio Library Laws grew and developed allowing school districts and cities to form and fund public libraries.  By 1899 when the first Carnegie Libraries appeared in Ohio, new laws had been developed to allow sponsoring governments to fund those libraries as required by the agreement required by Carnegie.


Beginning in 1906, the State Library of Ohio had a Library Development Office to assist libraries statewide.  Countywide libraries had formed early in the 20th century allowing the residents of the entire county to use the library.


Our own library was formed on October 1, 1899 as a Department of the City of Steubenville to receive the $ 50,000 Carnegie Grant.  From 1902 until 1936, the Carnegie Library of Steubenville was open only to city residents.


In 1933, then-State Senator Robert A. Taft developed legislation to move public libraries to the situs intangibles tax, and make them independent of local governments for funding.


Our library system added “and Jefferson County” as the legislation required public libraries to serve the entire county of their origin, and beginning January 1, 1936, the State Library of Ohio named our library the “county extension center” for Jefferson County.


The establishment of new public libraries was ended in 1947, and any new libraries formed had to be a branch of an existing library district.


Intangibles tax funding continued until December 31, 1985 when a Tax Review Commission recommended ending the intangibles tax in favor of the state income tax, and formed the Public Library Fund to finance Ohio’s 251 public library districts.


From that point forward, Ohio’s public libraries receive a monthly distribution from the Public Library Fund to operate each of the library districts.


Beginning in 2003, the Governor and Legislature began freezing and cutting the Public Library Fund, and in 2009 a 24 percent cut was made.  Libraries were advised that they could replace the funds with a local Library Levy approved by voters.


The total cut to public libraries was 31 percent over the 2003 distribution, so our library system placed a 1 mill levy on the Nov. 2010 ballot.  That levy was approved by Jefferson County voters, and since that time the Library System has operated with both the Public Library Fund and the local Library Levy.


In the 5 years since the levy was approved, the state budget has restored none of the Public Library Fund and promises of a 4 percent increase last year found a 2 percent decline instead.


The renewal of that local levy will appear on the May 5 primary ballot at the same rate as the 2010 original levy.


In addition to the Carnegie funding misconception, many people don’t recognize that Public Libraries are government agencies just like cities, counties, villages, townships, and school districts.


I always say we are somewhat different, with evening hours, Saturday hours, and one location with Sunday hours.  There is no requirement to use the library and its services.


People are probably tired of my speech that libraries are the “last public service desk” in our communities with the demise and closure of many local, state, and federal offices.  Those agencies send people to the public library to access their agency online.


If you haven’t visited your public library recently, this is a great time to start.