As a librarian and ardent bibliophile, I’ve written a couple of posts before on libraries. However, I realized that I’ve never written about libraries in the Pittsburgh area. Although Pittsburgh is always remembered for its historical steel past (the moniker of Steel City remains to this day), it should also be remembered for its libraries. Pittsburgh was, after all, home to Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, who amassed his vast fortune here and donated money for the construction of over 2,500 public libraries around the world. Braddock, Pennsylvania, a borough located a short distance from downtown Pittsburgh and also home to one of the Carnegie Steel Mills, was home to the first Carnegie library in the United States.
With the exception of more unique library systems such as the main branches of the Seattle Public Library and the New York Public Library, most public libraries are in average spaces without much “flare” to them. My local public library is housed in a rather nondescript (i.e. rather ugly) building. However, when Carnegie libraries were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were constructed in a variety of styles including Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical Revival.
Although Carnegie will always be remembered for his billions, he had a humble upbringing. He was born in Scotland to poor parents and immigrated to the United States in 1848. He had always been an avid reader and when working for a local telegraph company in Pennsylvania, he often borrowed books from the personal collection of his employer, who opened his library every Saturday to his workers. Carnegie credited his former employer with providing an opportunity for working boys (those not born into wealth and privilege) to “acquire the knowledge to improve themselves.” While today in the 21st century books are often taken for granted, before the Carnegie libraries, books were objects reserved strictly for the upper classes.
While some of the Carnegie libraries in the Pittsburgh area have been renovated and thus no longer showcase their historical appearance, others look just like they did more than 100 years ago and still have their unique features. They were often constructed in locations where the lower classes, especially immigrants, lived. Two of the most famous Carnegie libraries were located in Homestead and Braddock, sites of steel mills that employed thousands who toiled in unimaginable living and working conditions that were infamous. These public libraries were not just a place to read books but also to cultivate learning, encourage English language acquisition and simply become educated, something that would never have been possible back in the Old Country. Most lower class individuals at this time did not continue their education beyond the eighth grade level, if that.
-Carnegie Free Library of Braddock
Braddock today is in a downward spiral as it has been ever since the collapse of the steel industry in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. However, at its peak in the 1920s, its population was around 20,000 people, many of them immigrants from central European countries.
The Braddock Carnegie Library was built in 1888 in an eclectic medieval style and was dedicated by Carnegie himself in 1889. In addition to its stacks of books, it housed various recreational facilities including billiard tables, a bathhouse which provided Carnegie’s mill workers with a place to shower before using the library and was accessible by a separate entrance (indoor plumbing was unheard of at this time, especially where the mill workers lived), a music hall, a swimming pool and a two-lane duck pin alley. It was believed that in its earliest years, the athletic and recreational facilities were available to members of the Carnegie Club, who paid a quarterly fee. Employees of any Carnegie-owned company (there were many in Pittsburgh at the time) received a 50% discount which at the turn of the last century amounted to $1 USD a quarter.
The library remained in continuous operation from 1889 until 1974, when disrepair and lack of funds forced its closure. Although it was supposed to be demolished, a group of individuals who had been patrons ever since they were children and the library’s last librarian, purchased the building in order to save it. Initially reopened as strictly a children’s library in 1983, it has slowly continued to regrow since then with restoration efforts continuing to take place.
On a personal note, I actually was supposed to interview there a couple of years ago for a children’s librarian position. I ended up canceling due to the distance (it would have been an incredibly long commute) as well as the location. While I always hope that dangerous neighborhoods can rebound and be “taken back” from the streets, Braddock is by no means remotely near to that point. The library building itself is stunning even admiring it from the street and it’s easy to imagine Braddock’s streets filled with mill workers and their families dressed in their Sunday attire on the way to the library to better and enrich themselves.
Although they were on the opposite side of the state of Pennsylvania, my great-grandparents also lived in a steel mill town (Bethlehem). I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother was literate since she became a naturalized citizen; I just wonder if she had access to a public library like the immigrants in Homestead and Braddock did.