Value of a library is measured in more than mere volume

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My friend Sherry lives up the hill on Hampton Avenue in Swissvale, near the school. She and her husband have had the house since the 1980s. They've put a lot of work into it. On summer evenings, you'll see her out on the porch, enjoying a cup of tea.

When I first knew her, Sherry was a legal secretary. She took the 61 bus into town, where she typed letters and listened sympathetically to a long succession of clients, including one who was certain her house was haunted and an unhappy young woman whose boyfriend told her they were going for a drive and forgot to mention that he planned to rob a bank along the way.

Then life interfered. Sherry's husband took a job overseas. She went with him. When she came home she found employers weren't looking for an older woman.

Then she got a job she liked better.

Sherry started as a volunteer at the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale. In due time she was promoted to a paid employee. The salary was not what anyone would call good, but the rewards were huge!

She liked helping people use the computer, pointing patrons to the right section. A lifelong reader, she especially loved working among the books and talking to other book lovers, recommending a good read or listening to someone else's recommendation.

It meant sometimes working on Saturdays, or in the evenings. But those were good Saturdays, and great evenings.

When the storm called Snowmageddon hit in 2010, Sherry pulled on her boots and waded down the hill, to make sure folks in Swissvale had access to books and DVDs until the roads cleared.

Sherry loved working at the library. But good things don't last.

Last year her father got sick. She had to leave her job to stay home and take care of him.

Sherry still stopped by the library every now and then, but as a patron, not as staff. She's still an avid reader, after all. She also likes to listen to books on CD while she's doing her housework.

But she can't leave her father for very long, and because of him she has a lot more work to do at home these days. So she can't get to the library very often.

Instead, she built one in her front yard. A few months ago, she read about a couple in Edgewood who had started a miniature library. She was inspired to open one, too.

A friend who's a handyman built the sturdy wooden case with a few shelves and a glass door. Sherry painted the case cream and brown, with the inscription "SWISSVALE LITTLE LIBRARY TAKE A BOOK, LEAVE A BOOK" in elegant script across the sloping top.

She stocked it. Any book lover has a few volumes that she doesn't want to keep and has no intention of throwing away. The collection is small and eclectic. Nonfiction and reference, juvenile and popular novels.

They aren't shelved according to any particular order. It's not really necessary to do that when you only have two shelves.

Neighbors have passed and added to the collection. Others have taken books out. All to the good.

So far, the only things available are books. Nobody's donated any DVDs or periodicals. No computer access either. On the other hand there are no due dates or fines. You don't even have to check out your book. Just make your selection and be sure to close the little glass door, so the other books stay dry.

One of Sherry's neighbors, a teenage boy, took out a book about a boy his age who becomes a boxer. Sherry and his mom were both happy to see he was intrigued with it. Now Sherry's looking for other books for teenage boys.

The Swissvale Little Library can be found up on Hampton Avenue, near the school.

If you're wondering what to do with that good paperback mystery you just finished, you could take it there. There's room on the shelf. If you're looking for something to read and don't want to drive all the way out to a Barnes & Noble, you could check out the collection.

No need to disturb the librarian. She's probably busy. But if you see her out working in her garden, you can always say hello.

Sherry still misses her job at the library, but not as much as she used to, now that she has one of her own.


Jean Martin of Swissvale can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255. First Published January 9, 2013 5:00 AM

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