When I relocated to Pittsburgh from New York City in 2005, I was struck by how well-trafficked the library branches are in this city -- how well-loved and vibrant, how welcoming and appealing they are to be inside.
Now that several of Pittsburgh's historic library branches are on the chopping block, can we find a method to harness existing enthusiasm and save these city assets?
How can we, as a city, highlight the value of something we already value (in patronage) immensely? In a sense, raising the perceived value of libraries may have been the greatest legacy of Andrew Carnegie's extensive library philanthropy.
There were already a few hundred public libraries in America when Carnegie first began offering library funding across the country, but many of the existing libraries were collections housed in makeshift or temporary spaces (a room in a courthouse, some shelves in a classroom). It was precisely by proliferating beautiful, permanent, dedicated library buildings that Carnegie raised the profile of many library collections that had often been run like charities by devoted women's clubs.
You already know that Pittsburgh holds a rich history of the public library, but let's review the distinctions (lest we take them for granted):
• Pittsburgh boasts America's first Carnegie Free Library charter (Allegheny), whereas Braddock beat Allegheny to erecting the first Carnegie library building.
• Pittsburgh claims the first library designed with stacks for open-access browsing (Lawrenceville), the first Carnegie branch library (Lawrenceville), and the first Carnegie branch library system (City of Pittsburgh).
• Pittsburgh was on the forefront of children's librarianship with the first fully organized children's department (Main), the first pre-designed children's room in a library building (Lawrenceville), the first story time (West End), and the first training program for children's librarians (Main).
Andrew Carnegie wasn't born here but he learned the power of the library here when he began his legendary self-education in the private library of Colonel James Anderson. Hill District-born playwright August Wilson learned the power of the library here, too; his life changed forever when he walked into Carnegie's Hazelwood branch with a basketball under his arm and discovered a small "Negro section" of books. He went on to systematically design his own high school curriculum, studying for the next four years at the Main library in Oakland. In a 1999 speech about literacy and libraries, Wilson emphasized: "That shelf of books gave me ... the proof that it was possible to be a writer."
With such a tradition of library firsts and inspiring patrons in Pittsburgh, why not continue as the forerunners of the next wave, as libraries add digital resources and new library buildings go green -- without losing the best of the neighborhood resources and patron attention we already enjoy?
Myself, I grew up in (another) one of America's most densely historic areas. Loudoun County, Virginia, is an hour's drive from Washington, D.C., and its landmarks include Civil War battlefields, American Revolution-era taverns, antebellum Main Streets and the extravagant country homes of early presidents. The county has preserved many of its downtowns and mansion estates with pristine renovations, thanks to deep-pocket private and nonprofit investments, and the result is an uniquely beautiful living history that creates resident pride and attracts tourists from near and far. These renovations have helped shape Loudoun's identity and made an asset of its storied past, and none of this has slowed down America's fastest-growing county.
An unfortunate part of Pittsburgh's industrial legacy is the bad habit of discarding what seems dated in the name of "progress" or "the new." But that's not the era we're living in today. In the 21st century, we need to wake up and smell the landfill, and think long and hard about what we're tossing aside (or letting decay) in the name of progress or of saving money in the short term.
Historic branch libraries like Mount Washington and Lawrenceville are not only architectural gems, but also attest to Pittsburgh's heritage of philanthropy, the labor and wealth of steel, and the stories of many generations of each neighborhood -- while holding the possibilities of the next undiscovered playwright in their stacks (and in their free computer access).
As we speak, the city's libraries are being forced to agonize over a paltry (if growing) $2 million annual budget gap (only $6.50 per city resident). But instead of the short-sighted tactic of letting some of our most historic library branches (and their beautiful buildings) fall to budget cuts over a relatively small sum, why not go visionary and make Pittsburgh the poster child for the Power and Possibility of Public Libraries, complete with Andrew Carnegie and August Wilson as the yin and yang faces of the campaign?
What I'm proposing is Library Tourism: Perhaps if Pittsburgh were willing to recognize its public libraries on a grand scale, the public libraries can return that recognition (and tourist dollars) to Pittsburgh.
Let Pittsburgh's public libraries become funding magnets through green buildings and additions, but especially via historic preservation. As Pittsburgh architect Rob Pfaffmann reminds us, "The greenest building is the one that already exists."
Make a map of the historic libraries through the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Create a guided tour via the Heinz History Center. Make a photography book of the area's historic public libraries through University of Pittsburgh Press. Make a virtual tour through a gorgeous CMU-designed website. Curate an exhibit at the August Wilson Center. Train a roster of adjunct library-history docents to be available at each historic branch. Treat the buildings like living museums -- valuable as historic architecture, valuable to communities today.
Pittsburgh "gives good conference"; conferences and conventions bring substantial dollars into the local economy.
Just as we highlight the City of Bridges by hosting the annual International Bridge Conference, we should court the many conferences held by the American Library Association, the Public Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Library and Information Technology Association, the Special Libraries Association and all the rest. The American Society for Information Science and Technology is due here in the fall.
Bring librarians of all stripes here and make them oooh and aaah; let them leave in awe of Pittsburgh's public libraries and the city's embrace of them.
The library science program at the University of Pittsburgh had its early beginnings as a training program for children's librarians at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland.
Keep the school on the cutting edge of public librarian education by offering courses (or specialty tracks) in "public librarianship," "history of public libraries," and "library advocacy."
The public librarians I've met in Pittsburgh have impressed me mightily with their humane agendas and commitment to public service, while remaining forward-thinking about changing resources and threatened funding. Put some of Pittsburgh's best heads together and tackle the challenges of public library funding, the future of public libraries, public libraries' role in the digital age and library advocacy on a large scale. Invite papers, create a conference. Partner with the Public Library Association and host an annual PLA forum on rotating topics.
Pittsburgh brags about its neighborhoods, about not wanting to cross a hill or a river. It's the perfect time in history not to! Branch libraries are wonderful, multi-purpose, multi-generational gathering places to which to walk or bike.
Let the branches exist on the forefront of the return to sustainable communities:
• Partner libraries with area businesses to create, reshape or retain a nexus of needed and wanted retail and services in or near the neighborhood library.
• Put a coffee shop and an ATM in or near each branch.
• Let area businesses benefit from the traffic libraries already get, and then let all parties sustain the mutual benefits.
Carnegie's Allegheny library had a special place in his heart and was the first of 1,600 library buildings he chartered in America. With it he spread the values public libraries embody -- equal access to education and information for all, commitment to community and dedication to lifelong learning.
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Our libraries are a legacy for America's Most Livable City not to take for granted, but to celebrate and perpetuate.
Karen Lillis is a novelist, freelance writer and recent master's graduate of the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).