Pillbox

"Free to the people"

A feature on libraries? Oh dear — well, it looks like you found something to line your birdcage with this week. Scrap paper for the next big chem exam? If nothing else, you could make a damn good paper airplane. I mean, why should anyone care about the Carnegie Libraries?

No, seriously, I’m asking: Why did Carnegie bother building them anyway? And how come the main Carnegie Library in Oakland is so much bigger than any of the other branches? Are they of any use to your average Carnegie Mellon student? And what do they do for the larger community of Pittsburgh?

Wait — maybe a library is more than just a food- and noise-free environment. Maybe a history on Pittsburgh’s 110-year-old library system is worth a read. Bear with me, and I think you’ll learn that libraries aren’t as boring as they sound. Who knows, you might even wind up wanting to get a library card.

Standing outside of the South Side Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, you might think you’re catching a glimpse into the past. The building hasn’t been renovated since its construction in 1908, and you can still see the name Carnegie embossed in the steel of the staircase. It seems even older in light of some of the more modern libraries in Pittsburgh, such as the one in Squirrel Hill, which reopened in 2005 after an extensive makeover. But even if the South Side branch is physically ancient, it’s still an extremely accurate barometer of its neighborhood and city — even its era. Believe it or not, the same goes for all of the Carnegie Libraries.

Lydia Scott, the department head of the South Side branch, explained some of the ways that the library has developed over the years. “The way people use the library has changed,” said Scott. Technology is a significant factor. Over the years, the available audio/visual resources have been both updated and expanded. CDs and DVDs have replaced cassettes and videotapes, and the demand for books-on-CD is continually increasing.

The classic library connotation — as a home for encyclopedias, biographies, and history books — might have to be revised. As computers continue to rule our lives, there is less of a need for hard-copy resources than there used to be. If you’ve got a history paper to write, the smaller branches might no longer be your best option — several decades ago most of the research materials in the system were consolidated in the main Carnegie Library in Oakland.

What has replaced them? In the South Side branch, what remains is a largely new collection, including recent fiction and consumer health books. Library visitors older than Carnegie Mellon students are typically interested in that kind of literature. Scott explained, “Our population is getting older.” It’s becoming common knowledge that the average age of Pennsylvanians is on the rise, but I was a little surprised to see such a statistic evidenced in the South Side library. Who knew that the catalog of books available could reflect a growing flux in demographic?

Though the Carnegie Libraries have a history of being dynamic, certain aspects haven’t changed at all. At any of the smaller branches, you can find a section devoted to local history. Scott referred me to a group of filing cabinets in the corner of her office. In her words a “throwback to the old system,” the local history section of any Carnegie Library is likely to be a collection of pamphlets, fliers, and newspaper articles that capture the history of its neighborhood. It’s a collection of documents from the past, dating back to the end of the 19th century. This is only one example of how every public library in Pittsburgh has its own personality, reflective of its environment.

It’s nice that the libraries have a stable tradition of cataloging history, but sometimes a lack of change overlaps with disrepair. When I asked Scott what kind of special events the South Side branch held, she told me that a significant limitation to hosting members of the community is that the library is not fully wheelchair accessible. There’s a ramp leading up to the front door, but the only conference room is in the basement, which requires the use of a stairwell. Additionally, the South Side library lacks climate control, which can cause an unpleasant environment during the summer and winter months. From the outside, the library looks like a landmark of the past, but these internal constraints aren’t just authentic — they’re inconvenient.

Compare all of that to the main Carnegie Library in Oakland, where a security guard watches the entrance. Originally opened in 1895, the library is large enough to fit in with the neighboring museums. Its first floor was recently remodeled, and the people of Pittsburgh certainly appreciate its grandeur: Suzanne Thinnes, the communications coordinator of the Oakland branch, mentioned that the library recently hosted its first wedding. While libraries such as the one in South Side cater to older Pittsburghers, the main library is targeting everyone. Thinnes pointed out that Oakland is one of the most diverse areas in Pittsburgh. The rare book room and music and art section are two of the primary attractions. Despite having libraries on campus, college students frequent the main library, valuable both for its selection and location.

So why aren’t more libraries like the Oakland branch? Library revitalization benefits not just the library itself, but also its community. Thinnes labeled the Carnegie Libraries as “community anchors.” Whenever a library is renovated, you can expect a resulting economic boost in the area. The renovation spurs an increase in library attendance, which in turn increases the patronage at local businesses, such as restaurants and cafés. And a rebuilt library will also beautify its surroundings. Just look at the intersection of Forbes and Murray, where the newly revitalized Squirrel Hill library steals the show.

There’s one obvious reason why some libraries are being revamped, while others — such as the South Side branch — have not yet been touched: money. Most people think that Andrew Carnegie provided the city of Pittsburgh with an endowment for its libraries. Regrettably, said Scott, the “nine people out of 10” who are under that impression are mistaken.

Years before he sent the famous “My heart is in the work” letter, Andrew Carnegie had another philanthropic pursuit on his mind. In 1890, he proposed the idea for a system of public libraries in Pittsburgh. He gave $1 million to the city to cover the construction of the main Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland and five others, but — as Scott was eager to point out — did not pay for the books or grant an endowment. The endowment that many erroneously believe provides library funds was actually allotted by Carnegie solely for the preservation of the city’s museums.

It thus became the job of the government — and more importantly, the community — to set up and maintain the Pittsburgh libraries. If you know anything about Andrew Carnegie and how he thought, it might seem natural that this is exactly what he wanted. Thinnes explained that Carnegie believed that since the new libraries were to be for the common man, it followed that the common man was also responsible for them.

Throughout the entire project, it is certain that Carnegie meant for his libraries to be used by the laymen of Pittsburgh. Before the system was implemented, libraries had been strictly private institutions. In his youth, Carnegie had been allowed to benefit from such libraries by the kindness of their owners, but many were not so fortunate. Carnegie believed that education and literature were not luxuries for the affluent, but rather tools to improve the mind that were fit for the common man. That explains the promise adorning every one of Carnegie’s libraries: “Free to the People.”

But what does that have to do with the population of Carnegie Mellon? We’re already paying $30,000 a year; why should we care about free books? Here at Carnegie Mellon, we’re not really the common man. We’re learning more from our teachers than any library could teach us, right?

Well, the Carnegie Libraries might not be giving our professors a run for their money, but there is one particularly compelling success story of a library-goer who received an excellent education — for free. This is the story of August Wilson, the late African-American playwright who wrote Fences and King Hedley II, among other works. Wilson achieved immense success as an adult, but began modestly as a pupil of the Carnegie Libraries.

A teenager unimpressed with his school system, Wilson dropped out of Gladstone High after one of his teachers questioned the authorship of a paper he’d written on Napoleon. He was initially wary of telling his mother about his decision, and for a while took to pretending that he was still going to school each morning. To fill the hours, Wilson got in the habit of visiting the main Carnegie Library in Oakland.

And here is where his education finally began. Wilson claimed that his time at the library in Oakland was ultimately of extreme import to his life: He once said, “Labor Historians do not speak well of Andrew Carnegie ... [but he] will forever be for me that man who made it all possible for me to be standing here today.”

Overall, the present situation of the Carnegie Libraries is complicated. They have a rich history of presenting the personalities of their neighborhoods and providing literature to the common man. Though some, including the South Side branch, still lack central air and an elevator, the “Free to the People” motto above the door has endured, and so has its legacy. Would Andrew Carnegie be satisfied with his libraries? That question may remain unanswered for the ages, but in the words of Lydia Scott, “His mission has been met.”