Walking up the red carpet to the opening of the newly renovated Oakland Carnegie Library, my worst fears were realized: they were taking pictures. Cameras flashed, and photographers angled for a better look.
“Smile, you might make the front cover,” said a Carnegie Library employee, clicking away with a camera. He was wearing a period-style costume from the gay 1890s, and he was joined by a couple of similarly dressed cohorts, also clicking feverishly.
“Smile,” my wife Anne said to me under her breath, not moving her lips. I forced a smile and tried to hurry us past the library’s paparazzi, but Anne slowed so they could get a better angle of her. She smiled, posed, and looked graceful. She was born for this stuff, and I wanted to run into the library and hide.
I am not really the networking type, and I went to the function with the intent of loosely covering it but also to meet some folks whom I usually interact with only over the phone. Knowing that my agoraphobia was not helping my career, I’d decided to make the small commitment to go to this event. I didn’t really expect the pseudo-paparazzi to actually be there—that was a surreal notion that I’d figured was out of the realm of possibility.
A pose of bibliophiles, they were sent there to make sure that folks attending the event realized that it, and they, were special. Thirteen months later, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is stll struggling with its finances, after spending $4 million on the renovation of the Oakland flagship branch.
The Carnegie Library event was showcasing the newly restored first floor of the library, where arches and other original architectural details were revealed after being hidden for years. A modern outdoor bamboo-edged reading room that was added as part of the renovations stayed filled with guests for most of the evening. Local officials hobnobbed with area writers, artists, executives, and others while munching on food and sipping wine or coffee and listening to the jazzy strains of Etta Cox and her band.
Local television broadcaster Sally Wiggin opened the remarks at the event. Those who think well, sleep well, and make so many other decisions well, do so because they are readers, she said. “Reading is everything,” Wiggin said.
But reading takes a commitment, one that many people are not willing to make. Reading is work, even if it’s work of the easiest type for many people. And though the renovation of the Oakland library and the support that effort has received are important, other changes in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and its branch libraries point to a complacency that’s unnerving to some.
In March of last year, Carnegie Library officials abandoned the century-old Hazelwood Library building to move the branch library to a smaller and more modern location at 4901 Second Avenue. Some would say the loss of the original library building, and the possible loss of other original buildings occupied by the branch libraries, is the result of the complacency of those in the community. Like those who fail to vote, too many of us don’t avail ourselves of the resources at our local libraries, so those libraries pare back services or hours. Others would say that the Carnegie Library failed Hazelwood, abandoning a historic structure (which is now owned by the City of Pittsburgh) while it was in the midst of restoring the Oakland flagship library and the Squirrel Hill branch.
Rumors persist that Carnegie Library officials would like to abandon the Lawrenceville, Mt. Washington, West End, and Allegheny Regional Branch library buildings by moving those branch libraries to alternate sites. The Allegheny Regional Branch has been a City Designated Historic Structure since March 15, 1974, and in July of last year, Pittsburgh City Council designated five original neighborhood branch buildings of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as “City Designated Historic Structures.”
The City’s Historic Review Ordinance now protects all of the original Andrew Carnegie-built library buildings in the city. In addition to the five library buildings that received historic designation, the Historic Review Ordinance already protects the Main Branch in Oakland, the Allegheny Regional Branch on the North Side, and the South Side Branch.
In the past year, former Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh director Herb Elish stepped down from his position to move with his family to New York. Elish spent five years as the director of the library, working to give something to the organization that would outlive his tenure. Not everyone likes Elish’s legacy.
Preservationist Glenn Walsh is what some might call Elish’s polar opposite. Walsh has fought to ensure that the original branch libraries are preserved, and he adamantly refuses to accept some of the changes that Elish brought about. Walsh and others in the Pittsburgh preservationist community are hoping the Hazelwood library can be moved back into the old building.
Still, the downsizing of the Allegheny Regional Branch library in the North Side has continued. “The Allegheny Branch used to have more public space on the first and second floors. They moved the reference room from the second floor to the first floor and have closed off the second floor to the public,” Walsh said.
Residents of Mt. Washington successfully fought to save their Carnegie Library branch from being moved to a different location on Virginia Avenue. Questions remain about what will become of the Lawrenceville branch. Opponents of its proposed closure last year also staved off that deathblow. But will there be enough neighborhood fighters to save the West End branch, if it is next on the chopping block?
At the public hearing of the Regional Asset District board last week, Carnegie Library director Barbara Mistick complained that she needed more money from the RAD, or she’d have to get a waiver to operate under reduced hours, Walsh said. The RAD board members told Mistick that they see [Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh] building libraries, but they don’t have the money to run them.
The Oakland Branch now is open only 59 hours per week, a six hour cut in operating hours. “They had to get a waiver from the [Pennsylvania Commonwealth Library] to continue operating that way. Otherwise they would lose state funding,” Walsh said.
Now, while some neighborhood branches of the library are closed on Sundays, the newly renovated Oakland and Squirrel Hill branches (a mere three miles apart) both remain open on Sundays.
I have been in the newly renovated Squirrel Hill branch, and while it is obviously much larger, the climate control is even worse than before, given all of the new windows. The place was hot and stuffy as a Pittsburgh August when I visited it the other day. It bothers me that the two branch libraries in a couple of the wealthiest and most influential neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are the ones that received the renovations, when other branches in poorer neighborhoods are closed or downsized, or could soon be closed.
This is a poor testament to the man who founded those libraries. Andrew Carnegie was the son of a broken-down Scottish weaver, with no money, connections or resources. He had to fend for himself, as the poor largely do in a free enterprise system. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and he wanted to help others to do so. That’s why he spent so much money founding neighborhood libraries.Andrew Carnegie felt that the branch libraries were more important than the main library, because the neighborhoods are where the people are, Walsh said. “He felt that libraries are where people could improve themselves. He felt they were particularly important in working class neighborhoods, where people needed to improve themselves,” he said.