Ideas run gamut on keeping all city libraries open

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Ideas for keeping the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's branches open and running ranged from obtaining corporate sponsorship to adding used bookstores at a public brainstorming session Saturday on the library system's future.

All suggestions will be given to a task force created after a funding crisis led the library board to propose closing four of the system's 19 branches last year. A public outcry produced an infusion of emergency funds as a temporary fix.

Asked if the task force would reject branch closures, Mary Frances Cooper, deputy director of the Carnegie Library, said that depended on alternatives.

Closures "can be gone if we get together and come up with a plan to make it go away," she said.

About 50 people attended the first of two meetings Saturday at the Serbian Club, South Side. Others will be held at 2 p.m. today in the North Side library and at 6:30 p.m. Monday in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Oakland. Summaries will be posted at www.carnegielibrary.org/future.

Ms. Cooper explained that more than 90 percent of funding comes from the Regional Asset District -- which distributes some county sales tax revenue -- and from the state. Proceeds from casino table games may add up to $800,000 next year, but its 2009 shortfall was $1.5 million. She described the library's efforts to close that gap, including staff cuts, salary freezes and adding a "donate now" button to its website.

Her description of a successful $55 million capital campaign drew criticism from some participants, who complained that it was used for major renovations on a few libraries rather than to help all of them stay open. When Ms. Cooper said money raised for buildings can't legally be used for operating costs, one participant suggested asking the original donors to redirect their gifts to buy books and pay staff.

Several participants accused the library board of being aloof and of holding closed meetings.

Anna Loney, a library patron from Beechview -- where the branch was threatened with closure -- proposed that the board include geographic representation from neighborhoods with branches. She sat at a table with members of an online group, Save Pittsburgh Libraries.

Relying on more volunteers was a popular suggestion. Mark Kohut, a book publisher from Westwood, said that when he offered to volunteer, no one responded.

Small groups were asked to identify two major challenges to library operations and suggest solutions. Evan Stoddard, a South Side resident and associate dean of liberal arts at Duquesne University, summarized his group's ideas.

Its members proposed recruiting corporate sponsors for branches and tapping into more state funds. To counter a lack of public involvement, they suggested making public service announcements and You Tube videos to promote the libraries.

They also asked to hold future meetings at community branches to make it easier for patrons to attend. A final suggestion was to have the Carnegie Library consult with the Port Authority on revising bus routes to better serve the libraries and their patrons.

Dr. Stoddard urged the board to make libraries in poor communities a priority. He said that Hazelwood, where the library was threatened with closure, no longer had a school or public swimming pool.

"The library is one of the few safe gathering places they have left," he said. "Libraries are essential community resources for these neighborhoods."


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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