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A Fresh Look: Borrowing some enjoyment at Carnegie Library
Monday, November 10, 2008

I had lunch with an old friend yesterday.

We caught on up old times over coffee, checked our e-mails, did some online shopping, listened to music, bought a few gently used CDs, even watched a movie.

The stories she had to share! Dramatic, comedic, courageous, passionate, tragic ... so many sordid and sundry tales of life and love, adventures and (mis)adventures, dreams and nightmares that she might as well have been a library.

She was.

"She" is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh -- the main branch on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. She turns 113 next month, a fresh and fun and functional and feisty old broad whose interests are, well, rather broad.

When I was growing up in Westchester County, New York, I spent several days (and nights) a week at the Eastchester Public Library. It was there, in crowded corridors of books -- "the stacks" they called them -- that I came of age.

I discovered, at a very young age, that a library was my special world, a stage I could set any way I want, thanks to the borrower's card that became a passport to living and learning.

And then ...

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. No overdue fines. No reserved books. No reminders the latest best seller was waiting for me behind the clerk's desk. As I grew older, I stayed away from libraries. Who needed one? The Internet made research quite novel -- you could read a book or magazine or newspaper online, facts and figures were a mere mouse-click away.

And then ...

I moved to Pittsburgh and "accidentally" dropped by the Carnegie's main branch. I was doing the museum maze -- first the Natural History, then the Art Museum. In between was the "filling," and a new chapter in my life began.

I knew this was not the typical library experience of yesteryear, not when I saw the Crazy Mocha cafe, not when I saw the self-check-out, not when I ventured up the grand staircase and saw the zillions of CDs and DVDs and, yes, even selected vinyl, just waiting for eager hands and ears and eyes. (I later learn there are more than 5 million items shared among all 19 Carnegie libraries.)

When I began researching the book I am writing, I discovered that the massive reference room has public computers with access to several important and influential databases usually available only to certain businesses, non-profits or individuals with lots of disposable moolah. Eye strain has never been so inviting. Or informative.

And so I visit the library, two, sometimes three times a week. It's always the same, yet always, different. A stop for an iced coffee and a bagel, well-toasted with cream cheese. I look over the used books and CDs for sale -- I have found out-of-print and collectible "stuff" here for a buck or two that sells much more online. Then, depending on my mood and the day and direction of the sun, I may do research, don headphones and listen to some records (one recent mint-condition gem: the soundtrack to the long-forgotten 1970 Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte TV special), attend a film screening, bask in the natural light and curl up with a book or simply watch someone bounce along while (quietly) knocking out a tune on the electronic "piano." I've even made a return to the microfilm department ... checking out issues of The New York Times and Time and Newsweek dating back to the daze of Prohibition. There's something about the whirl of those plastic reels as the film rushes between the teeny plate of glass that simply cannot be duplicated on any laptop.

If I need my library fix but cannot or will not venture out, I simply call. Yes, the library has a hotline -- it's there, proudly advertised on its Web site -- on which you can ask a reference librarian a query. Those feeling adventurous can actually do an online chat or send an e-mail.

How much does Liza Minnelli weigh? When was Marco Polo born? What is the square root of 13.657 divided by 4.678908? Where is Helen Clay Frick buried? Can Sarah Palin really see Russia from her living room? (The library promises that "every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours," although some, like Liza's current weight, may take longer.)

What's one of the more unusual questions in recent memory? Carnegie Library's Suzanne Thinnes shares that one caller wanted to know what four presidents had goats as pets. The answer: Abraham Lincoln had two goats (Nanny and Nanko), Benjamin Harrison had one (Whiskers) and William Henry Harrison and Rutherford B. Hayes also had one each, although their names, like their presidency, have been forgotten.

I think of another old goat, Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity allowed the construction of the libraries bearing his name. A library, he once said, "is the never failing spring in the desert."

Meet me at the watering hole.

To commemorate Pittsburgh's 250th birthday this year, newcomer and writer/editor Alan W. Petrucelli is sharing his insights with us weekly. He lives in Churchill and can be reached at entrpt@aol.com.
First published on November 10, 2008 at 12:00 am