South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Al Lowe
Contributing Writer 

What's happening with area libraries is still an open book


October 20, 2009

When the nation's economy is in trouble, library usage goes up but funding decreases.

This is the reason that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's board of trustees decided to close four branches, combine the Knoxville and Carrick branches at a new location and move the Mount Washington branch to a new site, Suzanne Thinnes, Carnegie Library communications director, said.

"People use our high speed Internet instead of their own, use our programs instead of going to the movies and use us for job searches," Ms. Thinnes said. "The Regional Asset District system allocates a portion of the sales tax collected in the county to the library and sales are down due to the economy."

The board voted Oct. 5 to close the Beechview, Lawrenceville, Hazelwood and West End branches, increase fines and fees, reduce operating hours by 28 percent and cut its staff by 30 people. The vote was 18 to 4.

"It was a no brainer," said City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who is also a trustee who cast one of the four opposing votes. "The library equalizes democracy because, if you choose to do so, you can better yourself. How can you shut the doors on something that is so important to the advancement of everybody?

"We never closed libraries before. Nobody wants to see them close. But the big elephant in the room is the operating budget," he said.

"It was a very painful decision. It was not taken lightly," Ms. Thinnes said.

The Carrick branch is a small location and the Knoxville branch is a little bigger, she said, noting they were a mile apart. Carrick had a 10 percent increase in usage in 2008 over 2007 and Knoxville had a 15 percent decrease in usage over 2007.

She doesn't know the timeline if Carnegie decides to build a new library for Knoxville and Carrick at a new unspecified location. But she said there could be a groundbreaking next year and it usually takes 12 to 18 months to build a new library.

Ms. Thinnes also spoke about the Mount Washington site. "Grandview Avenue is a great location but it is not great for a library. It is great for tourists. We need more access to the community, to homes, businesses and schools. Also, Mount Washington does not have air conditioning or ADA access. The community deserves the features of a modern library."

Mount Washington's usage is up 11 percent over the previous year.

The Carnegie could decide to build a new library at an unspecified site along Virginia Avenue, she said.

State Rep. Chelsea Wagner said she was "really outraged" and "it was very poor planning to pick winners and losers among the city's neighborhoods. We need our mayor to step up and say, ‘You are not closing. Period.'"

"The lack of transparency" upset her. "The foundation community knew this was coming down the pike."

She said she asked a library official a week before the vote if the upcoming board action would affect any specific neighborhood branches and was told "unequivocally" that it wouldn't.

Ms. Wagner complained about the operating budget and the capital improvements budget being separate, resulting in new buildings being built while branches are being closed. "It is like my building a $300,000 home and not feeding and clothing my family." She said it "was unconscionable to want to build new branches and to devastate neighborhoods at the same time.

"The board seems to have forgotten they are publicly funded."

She, State Rep. Harry Readshaw and others plan to meet with Library Director Barbara Mistick early this week. Mr. Kraus wants to hold town hall meetings to discuss what the new Knoxville-Carrick library should look like, where it should be and what services should be offered. "I want the people on the ground floor of those discussions. I want to empower the people to have their say."

He said he does not want to create false hopes, but he is seeking more funding for the libraries. He wants the city to increase its allocation to $1 million but needs five votes. He also would like the sports teams to be part of the equation regarding library funding.

Regarding the controversy Ms. Wagner alluded to of keeping the capital improvement money and an operating budget separate, Mr. Kraus said, "They are two different pots of money. They don't cross paths. The city has the same thing."

"It is obviously a great loss when a neighborhood library closes," Mr. Readshaw said. "The plans are not cast in concrete. Everything revolves around the funding."

"This is a work in progress brought on by the nation's economy affecting the state and counties. Everybody will try to do the best they can. Everybody needs to cooperate."

He mentioned the meeting with Ms. Mistick as an opportunity to discuss alternative funding.

"This may be a little optimistic but we are going to try in a professional, congenial way to find a resolution. My personal goal is to keep those libraries open. The question is how to accomplish this," Mr. Readshaw said.

"They have closed pools, parks and schools and they wonder why the kids are on the street causing trouble," Tom Coppola, a user of the Knoxville branch, said.

"The decision came as a surprise to us and to a lot of people," Greg Panza, programs manager, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, said. "It is an interesting idea that should be carefully reviewed. The current building is a treasure, a gem…We will start discussions with library leaders."

"The present site is highly visible, easy to find and has space for expansion and possible addition of a visitors' center," said Armand J. Panson, a retired research chemist and Mount Washington resident opposed to the new plan.

"Cost of renovation of the current building would be far lower than cost of a new building. This was demonstrated by the highly successful renovation of the Homewood branch library that included adding modern lifts and climate control systems."

He has been involved in campaigns on behalf of the Mount Washington branch's historical designation before and said he once handed leaflets on its steps while a gypsy violinist played.


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