Brian O'Neill: Lucchino getting his due as 'Mr. Library'

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I hear about a book. I look it up on the Carnegie Library website. It's there. I walk to my neighborhood branch Saturday morning and check it out. I like it immediately, and I find myself thinking about Frank Lucchino.

Is that weird?

OK, it is, but I've said it before and I'll say it here: Mr. Lucchino -- who's retiring from the library board at the mandatory age of 75 -- has been as good a friend as these libraries have had since Andy Carnegie checked out. In the early 1990s, when Mr. Lucchino was Allegheny County controller, he spearheaded the private fundraising and reforms that led to the countywide system and its computerization, a couple of advances that allow any resident to stake a claim on any library book or movie in the county.

Then, five years ago, Mr. Lucchino was on the library board that shook up Pittsburgh readers by issuing plans to shrink from 19 to 14 branches in the city proper. Bookish citizens revolted, and after a stopgap save that kept all neighborhood branches open, he was among the champions of a small tax to keep them strong.

The old Italian-American wouldn't let me call him Machiavellian with that branch-closing scare, but what happened next was fortuitous. In November 2011, city voters overwhelmingly approved a 0.25 mill tax -- on a $100,000 home, it amounts to $25 a year, less than 50 cents a week -- that dedicates more than $3 million a year to libraries.

"I wish I could take credit" for the way that turned out, he said, but the turnaround in the library's fortunes wasn't one he saw coming.

His day job is senior judge in the county Court of Common Pleas, but it's the legacy he's leaving the libraries that will be celebrated at a party in the venerable main branch in Oakland on Friday. It's no real surprise that he won't depart without one more nudge of the libraries in the right direction: the Frank J. Lucchino KIDS Fund.

This endowment will be dedicated to finding new ways to get books into the hands of poor children 8 years old or younger. He figures conservatives and liberals ought to be able to embrace a program that goes outside the usual government channels to find ways to get all kids reading sooner.

When he was county controller in the 1990s, he worked with then-county Commissioner Tom Foerster to get mini-libraries they called Knowledge Connection Centers into at least eight county housing projects from Natrona Heights to McKees Rocks. That was a godsend to many a working single mom; it made it far easier to put books in their kids' hands as they juggled the demands of work and home. But the money for that ran out a couple of years ago, Mr. Lucchino said.

"We need to stretch our minds to develop programs that are meaningful for these kids and make them lifelong learners," he said.

"Mr. Library," his board peers call him, and the word "passion" comes up whenever they talk about him. Betsy Watkins of Oakland, who has worked with Mr. Lucchino on library issues for decades, said he never stops pushing to get library services into every corner of the city he loves.

There was a time when more narrow thinkers were saying that computerization would make libraries less important, but the reverse is true. Every branch's personal computers are routinely full. (There were 22 million minutes of Wi-Fi usage at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh last year.) Many a 50-something job seeker, without so much as an email address when he walked in, has walked out of the library's Job and Career Center with a resume and cover letter successfully attached to an emailed job application.

Electronic books and evening hours are also a part of the modern library experience, due in large part to the reliable funding that arrived only recently.

It would be wrong to suggest Mr. Lucchino saw all this coming, but it wouldn't be wrong to say he saw unlimited potential in an institution that had been contracting. Just don't tell him he's fortunate that he can now relax. He'll tell you what he tells any whippersnapper who says he's lucky to be able to winter in Florida.

"I tell them, 'You can take my place, but you have to give me your age, and you take mine when you get back.' "

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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