February 16, 2018

Politician of the Year 2001: Tom Ridge

Pennsylvania’s governor seizes a historic opportunity, dramatically increasing state support for public libraries, leveraging local funding to boost hours, collections

By Norman Oder — Library Journal, 09/15/2001

In June 1997, a four-part Philadelphia Inquirer series graphically reminded Pennsylvanians of an uncomfortable truth that some library advocates had repeated to little avail: the state’s public libraries were drastically underfunded, largely owing to an antiquated state formula that provided little incentive for local jurisdictions to raise their support. Librarians were underpaid, services and collections lagged, and the libraries looked especially forlorn next to those in well-funded neighbor Ohio.

The Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) saw an opportunity and responded the following March with a “Platform for 21st Century Libraries,” an ambitious funding plan that did not propose to copy Ohio’s state-centric funding but respected Pennsylvania’s system of decentralized government. Most importantly, it urged that the funding formula—which allowed a state match as long as local libraries met a 1961 standard of $2 per capita—be revamped. It also called for an increase in state funding of $18 million a year for the next five years.

Meanwhile, the administration of Gov. Tom Ridge (R) had been investigating how to the improve state’s libraries. Ridge, whose wife, Michele, had headed the Erie County Public Library for nearly 16 years before moving to Harrisburg, hardly lacked consciousness of libraries. His transition team had included a librarian, and, even though state coffers weren’t overflowing, he had increased state library funding during his initial term, which began in 1995.

“Even with some lean years, they got a ten percent increase out of the chute,” recalled Ridge. “In the previous eight years, they had received, in the aggregate, a 16 percent increase.” In 1998, he had increased library funding by more than $11 million, spending $7 million to connect residents to the Internet and the Pennsylvania Education Network while also supporting a statewide library card and an online periodicals program.

More clearly needed to be done, so, when Ridge began his second four-year term in 1999, with the state more prosperous, he seized the opportunity. Drawing in part on the PaLA plan, he announced the largest increase ever in state funding for libraries, the first multiyear commitment, a two-year pledge of $32 million. Direct state aid was boosted by $17 million, or 56 percent, to $47.3 million. Of the increase, $8 million more then doubled a per capita payment to offset the general operating costs of libraries. Also, $9 million was earmarked as an incentive for local communities to boost support, matching 60¢ for each $1 between $5 and $7.50 per capita.

The carrot came with an appropriate stick. Libraries had to add hours of operation, expand their resources, and require library directors and staff to participate in continuing education programs.

The measure passed the legislature easily, thanks to a raised consciousness among the public, the unity of library advocates, and Ridge’s leadership. “Our public libraries are some of our most important community assets,” Ridge said at the time. During an interview with LJ after being named Politician of the Year, his words were music to any library advocate’s ears: “Nobody in my mind stretches a public dollar further than libraries.”

Continued support

Since then, Ridge hasn’t wavered. In 2000, even as he passed the state’s largest tax cut, he announced new public investments, including a $15 million boost for libraries. His plan further modified the state-aid distribution formula, requiring libraries to participate in county and district planning. The formula also earmarked funds for staff continuing education, additional reading and literacy programs, and expansion of library technology.

Earlier this year, he announced a $13 million increase for a total of $94 million to public libraries. And in his final budget next year, Ridge pledged “additional strong support to round out our plan.” “It’s a dramatic, historic increase,” said Ridge, noting that Pennsylvania, which had always lagged more in local than state funding, moved from tenth in per capita state aid nationally to third.

Last year, the Inquirer took a look at public libraries and proclaimed “a quiet revolution,” citing an increase in hours, materials, circulation, and use. Said Ridge, “Most libraries are willing to meet their funding challenge.”

Small libraries professionalized their service, and large libraries benefited as well. Eliot Shelkrot, director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, noted that the state program allowed the library to match its weekend open hours to the city public school year, while previously it was six weeks shorter. “It has enabled us to upgrade our computers on a continuous basis, and that’s not a luxury,” said Shelkrot. Moreover, another component of the state program has helped patrons access many more databases.

Glenn Miller, executive director of PaLA, praised Ridge: “The easy thing would have been to give lip service to it and throw a bit of money at it but to not make structural changes or commit to it for multiple years. Pennsylvania governors are usually reluctant to make more than single-year commitments.”

Miller said Ridge “really understands the importance of the public library as an agency for lifelong learning.” Indeed, Ridge recalled that, while living in Erie (where he was an assistant district attorney and then a six-term Congressional representative), “I became not only familiar with the customer side but also the business and public side, budgeting, hours, technology, and personnel. That variety of experiences, coupled with a belief in the mission of a public library system, has been very much a part of both my personal and public life.”

During their years in Erie, Ridge said, his wife would receive calls in the middle of the night, requiring her to deal immediately with crises in the library physical plant. He recollected how she struggled to maintain services during times of no-growth budgets. He also cited regular visits to libraries during travels, even during the couple’s honeymoon on Martha’s Vineyard. And since his childhood, Ridge has always been a public library user.

While Michele Ridge has been known in the state as an advocate for family literacy, breast cancer awareness, and youth violence prevention, she hasn’t been shy about letting her husband know what she thought of the larger library picture. “I had a lot of opinions about libraries, which I shared freely,” she told LJ. “I always insisted there needed to be a longer-term view. State government can’t just do things unilaterally. People in the public library community don’t always understand how governments interact.” Indeed, in his 2001 budget address, Ridge called his wife “Harrisburg’s most effective unregistered lobbyist.”

Lessons for other states

Given the particular nature of its decentralized local governments, Pennsylvania can’t necessarily serve as an exact model for others. Still, Miller said PaLA has been contacted for some advice from some other states. Also, earlier this year, a group of Michigan public libraries and cooperatives issued a report aiming to improve statewide funding, citing the successful Pennsylvania project as an exemplary effort.

Michele Ridge observed, “I think it’s very important for people in public libraries, not just directors but also trustees, to first of all support state associations but also to understand the context in which they are funded, both on the local level and state level. They should advocate not just by asking for more money but also by strengthening community partnerships. Public libraries are political just like everything else. The trick is not to be partisan.”

Miller noted that Pennsylvania governors prior to Ridge tended to talk about education while slighting libraries. “When this governor talks about education, libraries are almost certainly included in that, as they should be.”

Indeed, Gov. Tom Ridge said fellow governors have yet to ask him about his experience with libraries. “Maybe this interview gives me an opportunity to encourage my colleagues to look at the structure of funding within their own budgets. Clearly there’s no better place [than a library] in a community to promote and support not just basic educational needs but also continuing educational needs.”


Author Information
Norman Oder is Associate Editor, LJ


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