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Venerable Carnegie Library booked for reshuffle

1 million books and other items will be moved in Oakland

Monday, March 10, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you're looking for a copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, it'll take some searching. It's tucked away on the third floor, in Science and Technology.

 
 

Plans for library reorganization

   
 

But by next year, officials hope, the doyen of gourmet cuisine will be found on the first floor, in a new "popular" library, alongside other "I gotta have it now" books, magazines and videos as this venerable Oakland institution undergoes a major -- and, in some quarters, controversial -- reorganization aimed at making it a less-confusing place.

Even as renovations at several of the library's branches got under way recently, librarians in the main building began "cross training" to learn each others' duties for the day when four of the library's departments are streamlined into one easily accessible collection.

"More than a year ago, we began to think about the first floor and about people who come in, and how bewildered they are," said Gladys Maharam, the library's deputy director.

"Someone might be looking for books on photography and have no idea that it's on the third floor in the science and technology section. Or they might use the online catalog, get a call number and not know what to do with it."

The four departments that will be merged are Science and Technology, Music and Art, Social Sciences and Humanities, with about 1 million items moved to accomplish the task. A name change for the new collection is in the offing but hasn't been decided on.

On the second floor, books from the merged departments will be organized in a more intuitive way, from A to Z, the Library of Congress' approach rather than the Dewey Decimal System. A second audiovisual department will bring videos, DVDs, CDs and audio books together in one place.

There also will be a centralized reference service unit on that floor to better serve what the library calls "remote" customers, instead of having the information desk juggle in-person and on-the-phone service simultaneously.

Actual construction of the new spaces will begin in July and is expected to take up to two years to complete. Signs will be posted around the building to guide patrons to the books they want, officials promise.

"The whole purpose of all of this, of what we're doing now and thinking about in the future, is to make the library more accessible, more inviting, more exciting for its customers," says Herb Elish, the library's director, who was once chief executive officer of Weirton Steel.

After his arrival nearly three years ago, Elish moved quickly to stabilize the financially troubled library's finances, arranging for a $15 million bond issue to cover the library branch remodeling that began two weeks ago at four branches.

While the library must slice $1 million from its budget each year for the next 25 years, there have been no massive layoffs, and staff levels, hovering around 376 full-time employees, have remained stable. Staff reductions will occur for part-timers and through attrition.

Elish also has established the library's first private foundation, echoing efforts around the country by libraries to raise revenue and flying in the face of the longtime notion that libraries should rely on public funds.

He's made other changes, too: A Bestsellers program, a prominent display of numerous copies of currently "hot" books such as "The Lovely Bones," has been instituted at the Squirrel Hill, Brookline, East Liberty and Library Center branches, with more to come. However, the much-anticipated coffee nooks, part of Elish's promise to make the branch libraries more like bookstores, aren't expected until renovations are completed in May 2004.

On the technology front, the library has established a Web site that provides unprecedented access to its catalog, and which tracks books at all branches, where they are shelved, who has checked them out and what's been ordered from publishers.

Despite all the innovations, the word "customer" grates like squeaky chalk across a blackboard to some, who see Elish's business-oriented approach as one that hurts the library's primary mission -- to be a public service organization that provides in-depth resources to all. Anxiety about the pending changes has rippled through the work force during the past year.

And outside the building, news of the merging of the Science and Technology and Music and Art departments prompted complaints and queries, mostly centering on the fate of the library's renowned music collection, which makes top-10 lists nationally with its in-depth archive of music scores and 28,000 CDs, videos and books.

"This plan may enhance services for other parts of the library, but it will degrade the music services rather than enhancing them," said Deane Root, a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of Friends of the Music Library, a private organization that contributes up to $30,000 a year to the music collection.

The reorganization, which spreads different components of the collection over the second floor instead of in one place, and which requires that music specialists be available to handle general library duties, may result in less informed staffers who won't be spending all their time maintaining and nurturing the collection, he said.

"This is one of the gems of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh," Root said, noting that in two meetings with Elish, "No promises were made that they will keep trained and knowledgeable specialists on staff as they've had them heretofore."

Elish countered by saying that the music collection "will be as important and robust as it was before the name change. It will be maintained at its current quality. The expertise will be here and available.

"We have very special collections which have been built up over the years and which, if not unique, are well-known and of great quality," he said. "One of those is the music collection, and we are not only mindful of that but are dedicated to maintaining that and not permitting it to degrade. And we expressed that to Dr. Root and his colleagues several times."

Some departments will stay relatively untouched. The Pennsylvania Department, a highly specialized collection, is being kept separate, as is the Job and Career Education Center, the Foundation Center and the Children's Department.

Elish seems unruffled by the scrutiny as he continues making waves. And in the process, he's winning praise from some who criticized the hiring of a businessman to run a library.

"Our long-standing view has always been that these institutions ought to be run by professional librarians, but that doesn't mean that [Elish] isn't extraordinarily adaptable," said John Berry, editor in chief of Library Journal.

Last summer, Elish ventured beyond the current renovations and publicly suggested that one day the library might need to be moved to a more centralized location in the region, obviously enlarged and reconfigured to take care of technological needs. In a speech given at commencement ceremonies at The Heinz School of Public Policy, he noted that the 105-year-old building was "venerable" but needs either a major renovation or replacement.

Asked about those remarks in a recent interview, Elish backed off slightly, saying he wanted to focus on other issues for the moment.

"I'm concentrating on these neighborhood projects, on raising the money so we can do them, and now this reorganization. So I've really not spent time on [the question of a new building]. But I think that we will, as we get under way -- we need to start a community process and start talking about it."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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