Carnegie Libraries:                   Glenn A. Walsh

    Challenges and                           P.O. Box 1041

                Solutions --               Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15230-1041 U.S.A.

National Preservation    Telephone: 412-561-7876

   Conference 2006          Electronic Mail: < gawalsh@andrewcarnegie.cc >

Internet Web Site: < http://www.andrewcarnegie.cc >

                                                                        2006 November 3


Obstacles to Historic Preservation:

Grassroots Efforts to Preserve Carnegie Libraries


Good afternoon. My name is Glenn A. Walsh and I have been involved in historic preservation for a little more than a decade. I want to welcome you to the birthplace of the Carnegie Libraries movement, and both ironically and regrettably, also the city where the original Carnegie Libraries are now at great risk. Oh, it is likely that the original Carnegie Library buildings will still exist. However, these buildings’ use truly as Carnegie Libraries is quickly disappearing.


Why? The primary obstacles to historic preservation in Pittsburgh are ego and money. New managers of these wonderful institutions, who have little interest in their historic importance, seek to show-off  their supposed “creativity” to the world by completely redesigning the concept of a public library—of course, they call “modernization”-- often in a new structure. Simply, if they did not change the library, they would have nothing to  boast about, as they believe they could not boast about maintaining a historic library originally designed by Andrew Carnegie more than a century ago.


Due to the necessity of public funding for public libraries, politicians get involved and often support this change. Such change allows the politicians to display to the electorate that their tax dollars are being used to help the public, even if the result is a generic library structure and design due to the limited funds available. And, such change is often touted as “economic development”– the buzz-words of the late 20th and early 21st centuries–to justify the higher costs of constructing a new structure.


After the collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, about 20 years ago, public officials have been doing anything and everything they can to promote “economic development.” Although the beginnings of computer, robotic, and biotech industries in the region has helped, these more automated industries have not been able to employ as many people as were employed during the heyday of the steel industry.


So, the politicians have continued looking for any way to bring jobs and revitalization to the city. Most recently, they, and other civic leaders, have decided that relocation of public libraries may help revitialize neighborhoods. However, they ignore the fact that if a library is relocated from an historic structure, the historic structure becomes empty and unused.


This is what happened in the inner city neighborhood of Hazelwood, which had been the home of a major steel mill of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. To promote economic development on the neighborhood’s main business street, Second Avenue, the city assisted a developer in building a new two-floor office building. A laundromat and a deli which sells beer were lined-up to rent the building’s first floor. However, there was no tenant for the second floor. So, to ensure that this building would be built, the city suggested that Carnegie Library’s Hazelwood Branch should move out of the historic building, built in 1900, and rent the second floor of the new office building.


Carnegie Library officials agreed to this new library site, stating the historic building was not well visible in the neighborhood, being a couple blocks off of Second Avenue, even though it had been there for more than a hundred years and most people in this well-established neighborhood knew where it was. At a Board meeting of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which manages funding of county libraries, the-then Carnegie Library Director promised the board members that he would consult with the neighborhood, at a neighborhood meeting, before making a final decision to move the library. At the neighborhood meeting, attended by more than 75 neighborhood residents, the Library Director told the crowd that the decision had already been made and the Library would be moved.


After that announcement, the crowd became quite upset. Despite the fact that it was rather obvious that the majority of Hazelwood residents opposed the Library move, the Library decision did not change. And, the Library boasted that one of the neighborhood’s three community organizations, the Hazelwood Initiative,  supported the move.


Carnegie Library said that they would work with the Hazelwood Initiative for a reuse of the historic Library building. However, today the Hazelwood Library building, with its 250-seat auditorium, continues to sit empty and unused.




Then there are the consultants, architects, and contractors—most of them very politically-connected to local government officials—who pick-up the publicly-funded contracts to make the desired change a reality.


These are the obstacles to historic preservation in Pittsburgh, and perhaps in some other cities as well.









Consequently, in just the last few months, it was announced that America’s first Carnegie Library could close, and America’s first publicly-funded Carnegie Library will be abandoned in favor of construction of a new neighborhood library building!


The possible closing of America’s first Carnegie Library, the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb, would be due to an inequitable formula for the distribution of Allegheny County sales tax proceeds to suburban libraries. On August 28, the President of the organization which operates the Braddock Carnegie Library told the Board of Directors of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which provides public oversight of the library distribution formula, that the Library could close if the new formula proposed for 2007 is not altered.

This distribution formula has also affected the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, another Pittsburgh suburb. To maximize county funding through the formula, the Andrew Carnegie Free Library has discarded nearly half of their collection, from 35,772 cataloged items in 2001 to about 18,000 today. Due to the formula’s “Collection Turnover Rate” criterion, libraries with large collection sizes are financially penalized if that library does not have a correspondingly high circulation rate.


I am cautiously optimistic that the Regional Asset District Board will not approve a formula that results in any library closures. However, I fear that many of the inequities in the current formula will continue.


The first publicly-funded Carnegie Library in the United States opened in 1890, in the neighborhood where Andrew Carnegie grew-up. Located on Pittsburgh’s Lower North Side next to the original Buhl Planetarium, the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny was the main library for the-then independent City of Allegheny. Allegheny City merged with Pittsburgh in 1907 to make Pittsburgh the 6th largest city in the country. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison was present at the Library building dedication, which included the world’s first Carnegie Hall, built a year before New York City’s Carnegie Hall.


On August 31, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh announced their intention to abandon this historic library building in favor of building a new library building three blocks away. A Carnegie Library news release stated that, what is now known as the Allegheny Regional Branch Library “does not currently meet the needs of a modern neighborhood library.” This is despite the fact that this Library building was designed by the architectural firm of Smithmeyer and Pelz, which had designed the Library of Congress in 1889—and, the fact that the Allegheny Regional Branch had gone through an complete rehabilitation, from-top-to-bottom, in the 1970s.