It was very good news when Mary Frances Cooper, a librarian, was appointed the 11th director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) in January. I was never totally comfortable when CLP was directed by a nonlibrarian from business, even though that great library, built by Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, is symbolic of all the public/private partnerships so crucial to the public good in America.
The name Carnegie conjures up those “rags to riches” lessons we all heard as the gospel of free enterprise. It is a reminder of our industrial history and the important role of philanthropy in our public affairs. You can’t understand the great American public library system without knowing about Carnegie’s immense contributions to it. I am glad that the experienced Cooper, with years at CLP, is now at the helm there.
She believes the talk of technology making libraries irrelevant is the “greatest misconception” about them. She proudly brags of applying that new technology and all of its by-products to the service of the people and neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. In fact, much to my delight, Cooper has already made tremendous headway on her plans for CLP. She has begun to strengthen the connection between the library and the city.
“We are finding a seat at the table wherever important decisions are being made so we can leverage the power and the influence of the library,” is how Cooper recently put it. It is nice to hear a librarian talk about the “power” of a library. Cooper already envisions a library service and future as a stabilizing influence in Pittsburgh, where, as in every American city, new formats and methods of access to information and entertainment cause difficulty for folks who use them.
She has focused on the recommendations of a local task force on sustainable funding, telling the story of the Carnegie Library in a way that positions library service as one of the forces that help achieve the agendas of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the entire city, and the region. All of this is being drafted into a five-year strategic plan for the library by aggressively tapping into the ideas of citizens and city leaders.
As proof of her activism, Cooper has diversified and expanded the funding sources of the Carnegie Library to good effect. Beginning in February, neighborhood libraries are open every day after school and in the evening for study, socializing, and homework help. They are open every day for job seekers and learners. Pittsburghers have already gained an additional 119 hours a week of service. In some neighborhoods, like Pittsburgh’s West End, the new hours brought an additional two full days of patron use.
For several decades, I’ve watched the struggles of CPL. I’ve witnessed the tenure of many of the 11 directors and their staffs from way back when Keith Doms had the job. I was a close friend of Robert Croneberger and Jim Welbourne when they were in library school and later when they teamed up as colleagues in Pittsburgh. One of my favorite librarians, Andrew Armitage, the son of a Pittsburgh steelworker, was a member of that library school group with Croneberger and Welbourne. That group was there at the start of the social responsibility movement in our field, which demanded a more open, democratic American Library Association and had a huge impact on the profession as it marched through the 1960s. But that is another story.
Today, I’m cheering for Mary Frances Cooper as she marshals the ideas and courage from her staff and her own career to reshape and rebuild the great Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Library service is being reborn in the Iron City, a place that deserves that emblematic library, so important to Pittsburgh and such a crucial symbol to the American public library movement. Andrew Carnegie would be pleased and proud.