Editor's note: This story was produced in partnership with Pittsburgh City Paper.
Paranormal tours, African drum lessons and video-game tournaments that have kids leaping from their seats with shouts of victory may not seem like typical library activities. Yet they’re all happening in Pittsburgh-area libraries.
Library usage is declining in America according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll. More than half of Americans have not visited a library in the past year, but many local libraries are thriving community spaces. The main focus is still reading, but these spaces are often far from the stuffy stereotype that discourages any talking louder than a whisper. Patrons learn art, play computer games and get help with homework or applying to jobs. Librarians sometimes dress as wizards and, more often, work as real-world mentors for children in the community.
Caitie Morphew, library services manager for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny location, said libraries can empower children to explore new things with hands-on learning.
“How many kids get to see lives snakes and touch them? At the library?” Morphew said. “If we have a chance to explore that kind of learning — that gross, scary, freaky, shock-and-awe experience — that’s the things that kids like.”
Established in 1994, the Allegheny County Library Association has 46 member libraries over 70 locations, including 19 branches in Pittsburgh. The organization brought the county’s independent libraries together with the city to help them stay relevant. Today, many of them are vibrant learning spaces for adults and children alike. To highlight the changing and varied roles libraries play for residents, PublicSource explored how four libraries serve their unique communities.
Situated by a jitney stop, beer distributor and a string of restaurants on Federal Street in the North Side is the Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The branch is one of the first U.S. libraries opened by Andrew Carnegie, and its close proximity to social services such as Light of Life Rescue Mission, multiple bus routes and two elementary schools make the space a thrumming hub of community activity. On a Wednesday evening after school, the children’s space is packed. The tables and couches are filled with upward of 50 people, and the floor space is taken up by children in creative play. Some children are having after-school snacks while others are getting homework help, participating in the Reading Buddies mentoring program or taking free art lessons through ProjectArt. Morphew and children’s librarian Jamie Collett keep the chaos to a minimum while touching base with familiar and new visitors.
When a Roblox game got a little too raucous, they calmed the players while also marveling over a new avatar a child created. In the server-based game, kids explore different worlds, go on quests and meet up with their friends in virtual reality. The librarians chose to move all the computers together because Roblox is a social game.
“We see so many kids come out of school who had to sit all day and regulate their behavior, and they get here and we can feel this weight off their shoulders,” Collett said. “We believe that every child releases their energy differently. If that’s on the computer, that's wonderful.”
Parents are mixed in among the crowd, some meeting for resumé help in the adult space or using a computer to apply for jobs. Others clutch coffee cups from the nearby Crazy Mocha as they chat, taking advantage of the play space to find a moment of calm. Many children visit the library on their own.
“We are that safe place where children can come be themselves, find material or interests that are part of who they are,” Collett said. “We help them navigate social interactions or issues with peers.”
Sometimes that role means creating a quiet space for a visit between parents and a child in foster care. Sometimes it means finding out how an unattended child can get home at closing time or providing a dinner to a child with food insecurity.
Morphew has seen the role of librarians shift over the seven years she has been at the Allegheny branch. “We used to say, ‘Here is what your fourth grader should be reading.’ Now we think about how we can help parents or caregivers or teachers. How can we support that fourth grader when they come in and are enthusiastic about something? Sometimes it’s listening to them, sometimes it is a book, sometimes it’s finding a robot for them to program on.”
Despite the availability of games like Roblox, books still reign in the space. Shelves display the covers of dozens of books that highlight the diverse community in which the library is located. The faces of Michelle Obama, Malala and a children’s encyclopedia of Islam are all on display. The list for Reading Buddies is often 10 kids long. No matter the changing needs of the library space, the children seem to know it is a place where they can connect with an adult who has a genuine interest in their well-being. “For every one of those heart-wrenching stories, there are seven to 15 truly phenomenal interactions with kids and tweens,” Morphew said. “We read and interact with and mentor kids.”
Three years ago, Ellen Leger was visiting her mother in Montreal when she observed a library program for seniors at home. She saw the joy home visits brought her mother during a season of life when she was not able to get out as much. Leger returned to Pittsburgh with a desire to start a similar program.
The result is AgeWell Reads, a collaboration between Jewish Family and Community Services [JFCS] and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The program’s main goal is to provide seniors with books at home, but Leger has seen it develop into much more. “This really led into us looking into loneliness,” said Leger, the volunteer administrator for AgeWell senior services at JFCS. “It’s so hard to quantify, but so important.”
One senior, AnneLouise Feeny, let PublicSource in on her library visit. Leger loves Feeny’s enthusiasm for the program. “She sends us cards about how much she loves the books,” Leger said. “She loves to have her own librarian, have those conversations, fine tune their likes and dislikes. It builds another set of kind eyes into these seniors’ lives. Another touch point.”
Since the program’s inception in 2017, volunteers have completed 140 visits with seniors. The program is available to seniors in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland.
Chatting on the phone with the librarians helps the seniors home in on their literary interests. One 98-year-old participant likes “spooky” books, but the librarians realized she did not like murders. They work with her to find her mysteries. Leger said seniors with dementia enjoy picture books, photographic books about history or cookbooks to help their memory. The program connects visually impaired participants to the audio books or large print books from the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Once book selections are made, a volunteer picks them up and heads to the senior’s home. Carnegie Library has waived overdue fees for seniors and offers free parking to volunteers at its main branch in Oakland.
Leger loves to see the program grow and hopes that more volunteers will help the program reach more seniors in the future. “When you are reading, it activates a different part of your brain ... it is so good for everyone.”
In the quiet morning hours before the library opens, a handful of seniors sit with their coffee in front of a bank of computers. Ellen Goodman, director of Andrew Bayne Memorial Library in Bellevue, helps a senior open her email account and then helps her do it again several more times when she accidentally closes the browser window.
“Go to your mail. Click here. This is you. There you go,” Goodman explained.
Each Monday and Wednesday, Bayne Library gives seniors early access before the small space becomes crowded and the high ceilings begin to echo. This is just one of the ways Goodman and library assistants Diane Roos and Linda Willheid adapt to running a library in a 144-year-old house.
Andrew Bayne Memorial Library was gifted to Bellevue Borough by Amanda Bayne, daughter of one of Bellevue’s wealthy founding families, upon her death in 1912. The staff finds creative ways to run multiple programs in the old parlor, dining room and bedrooms of the Victorian mansion. Bayne also gifted the farmland around her home to be used for a community park.
Goodman acknowledged the drawbacks of the unusual space but also sees its potential, especially outside. “It’s a small space,” she said, “but we try to utilize the park as much as possible.”
Situated in the center of walkable Bellevue, the grand front porch is a stage for a summer concert series, which follows a bustling farmer’s market each week on the library lawn. A skate park sits just below the library. A brand new playground lends itself well to play dates developing out of the weekly baby lap-sit story times run by Roos, who is in charge of the children’s programming.
Pop-up play events in the park during warm months give kids a chance to move around beyond what can be done in the small second-floor bedroom that serves as the children’s library space. Each summer, the library hosts a wizarding festival in Bellevue, WizardVue, which is planned by a local volunteer board. All proceeds benefit the library with a goal of promoting literacy and a lifelong love of reading. Every elementary school student gets a new book in anticipation of the event, which Roos presented with wand in hand, dressed in her wizarding best.
This fall, the Friends of Bayne Library hosted a fundraiser to track down the ghost of Amanda Bayne, who is purported to haunt her former home. Almost 40 people toured the library, and according to an organization board member Meg Watt, paranormal equipment picked up readings throughout the night, including what seemed to be a figure in an empty corner. True ghosts or not, the fundraiser was deemed a success for the small but thriving library.
On a recent September day, the sounds of drums and laughter could be heard from the parking lot of Mt. Lebanon Public Library, dispelling the myth that libraries have to be quiet places. In the courtyard, lines of patrons learn dances led by African drum and dance instructor Yamoussa Camara. Others congregate around buffet tables featuring a potluck of food from around the world. Kids tentatively try foods that are new to them. A mother sways to the music with her napping baby.
The international potluck is just one of the ways the library is reinventing its programs. “I feel the community in some ways is what makes us stand out. They are very engaged and concentrated on our development,” Associate Director for Public Services Sharon Bruni said.
Bruni said the library’s programs couldn’t run without a team of about 300 active volunteers. She says they’re as important as the librarians.
“It is a completely symbiotic relationship,” she said. “We are so attached and very aware of what the community needs are, and they make sure we are very agile in meeting those needs.”
Libraries are a place, first and foremost, to read books for free. But Mt. Lebanon Public Library also hosts a bookstore. The store is run by volunteers, who Bruni said have a good understanding of which books are popular. In January, the volunteer organization Friends of Mt. Lebanon Public Library gave the library nearly $86,000 through bookstore revenue and fundraisers. These funds help the library run its programs, including a partnership with ACHIEVA to run programs for adults with disabilities, field trips to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and after-school STEM programming. The list of programs is long, but Bruni said the library remains rooted in the tradition that made them sprout up to begin with.
“It’s all about sharing our stories and the human record and making sure libraries remain central to that goal,” Bruni said.
This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.