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Three Carnegie libraries to get makeovers

Friday, May 25, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Looking for a copy of "Angela's Ashes," and maybe a recipe for boiled sheep's head to go with it? If you're looking in the Oakland Carnegie Library, you'll find Frank McCourt's novel in the social services department on the second floor and the cookbook on the third floor -- in the science and technology department.

Troy Miller, 7, a second-grader at Homewood Montessori School, reads a book at the Homewood Branch Library after school yesterday with classmates Breanna Brown, 8, at left, and Halley Katz, 7. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Herb Elish thinks that's not very consumer-friendly, and as director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, he's in a position to do something about it.

Hoping to reinvent the Oakland library as a comfortable, welcoming place, Elish plans to renovate its first floor into a "popular library" with current fiction, audio-visual materials, comfortable places to sit and read, and -- roll over, Melvil Dewey -- even a place to buy a cup of coffee and a Danish.

While you already can find some best sellers, videotapes and reading nooks on the first floor, the redesign aims to put them together in an enticing, customer-oriented package.

"We believe the time has come to develop a more inviting, contemporary image that will help us stand out in the ever-expanding retail world," Elish said. "In other words, we need to become a destination, a warm and welcoming place for people to spend an afternoon or evening."

Since taking over as library director in January 1999, Elish, a former steel company executive and a controversial choice for the job, has brought a businessman's perspective to the nonprofit library, overseeing strategic reviews of almost every library system.

He's shifted staff, eliminated some positions, cut expenses on janitorial and security services and raised salaries for all employees by 6.5 percent for two consecutive years. He's also doubled the amount of money spent annually on books, periodicals and databases.

While Elish views large, chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble as complements rather than competitors, he thinks libraries can learn a lot from their success, including how they display books and other merchandise and how they organize space and make it appealing.

Changes also are in the works for two branch libraries: the historic Homewood library, built in 1910, and the Brookline library, which has occupied a storefront on Brookline Boulevard for the last 11 years. One of the goals for the branch makeovers is to develop programming concepts specific to the needs of each library's community.

The renovation of the Oakland library, which opened in 1895, will include the lobby and entry area, the circulation desk and the principal reading areas surrounding the circulation desk.

The changes will be guided in part by ongoing research into what the library's users want.

"We want to respond to customers and find out what they would like and do it in the most convenient way, rather than be organized around a cataloging system," Elish said. "We don't expect this to be a major structural job because it's a great old space and preservation of it is important. We're not looking for fundamental changes."

Still, the lobby and entrance hall are dark, and the circulation desk blocks entry into the main space, which is crowded with computers that took the place of card catalogs. Those things are likely to change.

"We're also looking at the possibility of creating a separate, exciting teen area where they can get materials for their interests, and eat and do things and act like teen-agers, without disturbing other people," he said.

The renovations, which will include both architectural and programming changes, will occur as part of an overall fund-raising, marketing and strategic plan for the entire 18-branch library system.

The Homewood library was designed by Alden & Harlow, one of the most prominent and prestigious firms of the day, in red brick and white terra cotta with a Gothic-style entrance and windows. It has one of the most sumptuous and intact interiors of all the branch libraries, virtually unchanged from the day it opened.

"It's very important to me that we preserve the interior," said Elish, offering as proof the recent installation of an air conditioning system with no harm to the interior and exterior architecture. But, he added, "I can't say when you walk in a year from today you'll see the exact same things you see today."

Changes will be based on staff and community input and could include programming for teens and expanded computer services.

"I don't want to lose what we have," said Homewood head librarian Joyce Broadus. "We are a classic building and we are a classic Carnegie building. We need some updating and some furniture and cosmetic kinds of things. And ways to get people from one place to another easier -- there are lots of steps [to climb]."

In Brookline, the situation is different.

"It's an excellent location in a commercial area with a lot of traffic and a real window on the street," Elish said.

The city recently purchased the two-story building for the library, which had rented it for 11 years. Among the planned changes are expanding the children's department and adding a computer training lab. The library's space can be doubled by expanding into the basement. As in Homewood, all changes will be guided by staff and community input.

Elish said it's too early to estimate both how much all of these innovations will cost and when the work will be completed. He expects the money, which isn't sitting in the bank, to come from many different sources.

"We'd have to go out and raise it," he said.

The library will hire two architecture firms, one to work on the Oakland library and the other on the two branches. Each firm also will work with a library programmer to integrate programming and design changes.

The library has issued an RFQ -- request for qualifications -- from architecture firms around the region. Submissions are due June 15, with the selections to be announced the week of June 23.

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