Closing the book

LEWISTOWN – Tension built Wednesday afternoon in a meeting of the Mifflin County Library Board of Directors.

The community room at the library erupted in passionate discussion over the fate of the Allensville and Milroy branches of the library, ultimately ending in a divided 5-3 vote to close both branches.

Allensville and Milroy are two of five current branches of the library, also including Lewistown, Kish, in Belleville, and Rothrock, in McVeytown.

During the meeting, the board entertained public comment from a number of community members who gathered to voice concerns over the closure. Rev. Bill Muldoon, Commissioner Otis Riden, former State College Area High School teacher Mary Wilt, and county treasurer Janice Peachey expressed opposition to making a final decision at the meeting.

“I strongly urge you to find a way to keep the libraries open,” Peachey said, urging the board to at least consider a 90-day moratorium for the branches.

However, library faculty and staff said keeping the branches open is simply not an option.

“We’re like a sinking ship,” Kathy Knarr, library administration assistant, said. “We have to do something.”

Board members and library staff cited cuts in funding and low circulation at the branches as reasons for closing.

Susan Miriello, youth services librarian, said she would rather see three strong branches thriving than five weak branches failing.

Dorothy Coffman, who has worked at the library for 32 years, said she has worked at both the Allensville and Milroy branches for four to five hours at one time without seeing a single patron. She added that other counties, including Juniata County, of approximately the same size, operate only one branch.

After a public comment period, the members of the board of directors were allotted two minutes each to comment on the pending vote.

Board member Steve Dunkle passionately campaigned for a larger time slot, saying the decision has been fast-tracked.

“What is our hurry? These are people, these are faces…” he said.

He called it “grossly unfair” that the meeting was scheduled for early afternoon, a time when working individuals and school students were not available to be at the meeting.

Despite lower circulation at the branches, Dunkle recommended that the board develop a comprehensive plan in an effort to save the libraries. If, after a year, the mutually agreed upon goals and objectives fail, “I guess you have to do what you have to do,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to close (the branches) at this time,” he said. “We are a tremendous resource the public just doesn’t know it has.”

Jim Schnell, board member representing the Milroy branch of the library, agreed.

“Can you imagine Amish people in our community getting in their buggies and going to State College or Huntingdon (to use the library)?” he questioned.

Schnell stressed that he sees the library as a total system, not five separate entities, and the branches serve a greater community. He said he recognizes that circulation figures are low, but asked whether anything has been done to enhance circulation at the branches.

“I can’t remember anything significant,” he said.

Others on the board assured the public audience that every effort has been taken to avoid closures.

“Promotion costs money, and we don’t have money,” Teddie Snyder said. “We put our money into books and programs.”

Snyder said if people want to know about the library, it’s very easy to access information by phone or the Internet.

She also said care was taken to schedule the board meeting when as many board members were available as possible. Limited resources and potential closings have been considerations for years, she said.

“We have given a lot of notice,” Snyder said. “It’s been three years, not 90 days.”

Snyder said the decision was not an easy one, even calling it “heartbreaking,” but that it’s time for the library to move forward.

Sandy Dedmon, board member and former staff member, echoed Snyder’s thoughts.

“This is not something that we’ve come into lightly,” she said. “We are trying to do the best that we can.”

Mifflin County Commissioner Kevin Kodish said libraries are critically important, and he would hate to see any branch close. However, the survival of the library system may depend on it, he said.

Board member Terry Wade made a motion to close the Allensville and Milroy branches, effective June 1. The motion was seconded by Tom McNabb and carried with a 5-3 vote. Board member Corrinne Pierce was not present.

Mifflin County Library Executive Director Molly Kinney said all books and materials, computers and furnishings will be left at the Allensville and Milroy locations for the communities, should they choose to run their own libraries.