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Published Monday, October 19, 2009 in Local

Carnegie expert uses Newnan's example to save libraries

By Winston Skinner

The Times-Herald

Last month Glenn Walsh traveled to Newnan from the city where Andrew Carnegie forged his fortune and began his legacy of community libraries.

Walsh, an expert on Carnegie and the libraries he funded across the country, spoke at the rededication of Newnan's Carnegie Library in September. Newnan's Carnegie building is the first to return to its original purpose after being converted to another use, and it was a great day for Walsh.

"I was so glad to be at a Carnegie Library which had a good future," Walsh said. Then he added, "Such is not the case in Pittsburgh."

Walsh took a lead role in efforts in 2007 and early 2008 to try to keep the original Carnegie Library open. Ultimately, the building that began as the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny closed last year despite protests from across the nation.

Friends of the Carnegie, a group that pushed to reopen the historic Newnan library, and the Greenville-LaGrange Neighborhood Association were among the organizations writing to protest the closing of the first library Andrew Carnegie funded.

"Only a day after I arrived home, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh announced the February closure of three branch libraries," Walsh said. Another library, the Lawrenceville branch, will close by the end of the summer.

"They are also consolidating two branches into a new site, between the two neighborhoods. They will move out of another historic branch, Mt. Washington branch, into a storefront to save money," Walsh said.

Andrew Carnegie was born in humble circumstances in Scotland and immigrated with his family to Pennsylvania as a boy. He ultimately became one of the richest men on earth with a steel business that merged with others to become U.S. Steel.

In his later years, he focused his attention on philanthropy. His fortune helped build some 2,500 libraries in several countries.

Walsh noted the first Carnegie library, even though it closed last year, continued to have some use. The second floor was designated the Allegheny Depository and set aside to store historic collections and archives.

"Now, to save more money they plan to abandon their Allegheny Depository, and disperse the historic collections and archives to the Main Library, East Liberty Branch -- and wherever else they can find space," Walsh said.

"Three of the neighborhoods where they will abandon branch libraries have original historic branches. The West End Branch, the second branch built, had the first children's library story time," he noted.

Newnan's Carnegie is starting a story time program this week.

"Six years ago, I fought unsuccessfully to stop them from moving the Hazelwood Branch from the historic building -- which includes a 250-seat auditorium -- to a second-floor rental unit above a deli," Walsh said. "Now, they are going to close that smaller second-floor library, after spending more than $700,000 to equip the space."

Walsh said he has particular concerns about the closing of the Lawrenceville facility. "This was the very first Carnegie Library neighborhood branch built and the prototype for all other neighborhood branch libraries," he said.

"It also contains the first specifically designed and constructed library Children's Room and was the first library specifically designed to allow the public direct access to the book stacks, including a central circulation desk," he said.

All of Pittsburgh's historic Carnegie Library buildings are designated as historic by the city's Historic Review Commission -- except one which was sold in the 1980s and is now used as a mosque. The city's designation "only protects the building's exterior," Walsh said. "In the case of the Lawrenceville Branch, the interior is extremely historic and could lose its historic integrity after the library is closed."

Walsh has been working for years to save the old libraries and keep them in use. He said an effort to keep the Mt. Washington Branch open was successful several years ago -- even though library officials wanted to move "to a rental unit in the business district." Now, he said the library administration is again trying to close that facility.

Walsh talked about what happened in Newnan when he spoke to the Pittsburgh City Council on Oct. 7. "Since last December, I have been warning you about Carnegie Library's plans to close branch libraries. Now, they finally have issued firm plans to close several branches, and perhaps relocate a few of them," he said.

Speaking of Newnan's success, he told the council, "If they can reopen their library after 22 years, then certainly we could reopen library branches once the economy improves."

He urged the council -- which must approve legal transfer of the library properties -- to inform the library administration "that the city will not transfer ... any library property, just so Carnegie Library can make a financial windfall."

He also urged the city to push the library directors to "consider all library closures as temporary" and to provide the city with "a written plan to reopen closed libraries once the economic conditions improve."

Walsh said he believes Pittsburgh's mayor and council "are as angry with Carnegie Library as I am." He noted the libraries, however, are governed by the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which was created by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1993.

Library officials in Pittsburgh have complained the city provides only $40,000 in funding annually, which meets the requirements of an agreement between Andrew Carnegie and the city in 1890. Walsh said millions of dollars in city and county funds went to the Pittsburgh libraries prior to 1995.

The Allegheny RAD is funded by a sales tax, and the poor economy has cut the funds going to the RAD. "The preliminary budget of the Regional Asset District for next year freezes funding for libraries and parks at their 2009 levels," Walsh said.

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