A Pioneer Evolves

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh works both within and outside its building to engage the community

August 1, 2011

Andrew Carnegie had a radical idea. In 1895 when he developed the public library complex in Pittsburgh, it included swimming pools, music halls, art galleries, and a natural history museum. He wanted to ensure that his mill workers and their families had easy access to excellent cultural assets.

The original building still stands today. However, what’s pioneering in one century is not necessarily compatible with the next. As libraries have evolved, these legacy spaces do not always promote the free flow of information. According to Mary Francis Cooper, deputy director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, “We have had to work around the constraints of a building that was designed to be protective of books.”

When planning a renovation in 2002, CLP realized that a mere facelift would not be sufficient. The attitudes and behaviors of patrons had changed, and the library needed to be more accommodating. The administration wanted to become a preferred destination for information and social interaction. To help this process they hired MAYA, a design consulting firm, which led to the development of a more customer-focused framework that mapped the library experience. This resulted in improvements to both the physical and virtual space.

While CLP made great strides in enhancing library interactions, in 2008 it would face a new challenge. A budget shortfall left the board of trustees seeking new ways to reduce expenses. One of the leading suggestions was to close several branch libraries. This created an uproar in the community and led to calls for greater transparency. Cooper explains, “Because the library is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit, the board is not required to hold open meetings or publish its minutes,” and the sudden prospect of closing branches made a lot of people upset.

The library responded by re-engaging the community. Librarians, administrators, and trustees attended neighborhood meetings and other civic gatherings to share how CLP received its funding, and how it was spent. They articulated the issues and asked the community for feedback and for help spreading their message. Notes from the meetings were then posted online to allow the conversation to continue.

CLP also initiated an effort to increase visibility by having branch libraries set up tables in various locations around the county. The library system has 19 locations that provide service to 90 neighborhoods, so they wanted to reach out into new areas. This campaign was designed to establish a stronger connection between patrons and their local branches.

The most successful outcome of this promotion was the establishment of a library outpost at the Pittsburgh Public Market, a cross between a crafts fair and a farmers market. CLP teamed up with an iSchool marketing class from the University of Pittsburgh to develop and implement the concept. Every weekend since April 2011, the library has hosted a stand that features books about cooking and crafts, as well as materials for children. They provide free web access and other services, such as picking up holds.

According to Cooper, this is a direction CLP will continue to explore. “To what extent do services need to be building-based?” she asks, imagining librarians embedded throughout the city. “It’s important to us to consider what we can do for them out where they are.” To advance this prospect, CLP developed a coordinator of community engagement. The position is charged with keeping the community informed and involved with library matters, and with identifying advocates and new opportunities for outreach.

While libraries have evolved much since Andrew Carnegie’s era, his vision remains intact. He believed that “unless a community is willing to maintain public libraries at the public cost, very little good can be obtained from them.” CLP will have a chance to test this fundamental idea later this year when it seeks its first-ever voter initiative to increase property taxes to help sustain library operations. The library has made great strides to engage with the community, and now the people will decide the next steps of its legacy.

BRIAN MATHEWS is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.



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