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This is Our Library!

"The phrase FREE TO THE PEOPLE is carved in stone over the door of the Carnegie Library's Main Branch in Oakland, but we know it isn't true," writes library customer David Malehorn, PhD.


Both my parents were teachers. My love for books began in covert sessions under the dining room table, where the beautiful illustrations from "Sally, Dick and Jane," an instructional book from my parents' classrooms, beckoned me into the world of reading.

It was inevitable that the library would become part of my life. I passed it twice daily on my walk to and from middle school. In summertime I circled our small Illinois town endlessly on my bicycle, passing the library as I sped down the big hill on Sixth Street. Eventually, I stopped in.

Marble steps led past a carved stone fašade into a dark interior, which was a woodworked museum of bookcases, paneling, banisters, vast tables and smooth chairs. All this was lit by hanging lamps designed for the recent invention of electricity. This library had remained virtually unchanged since its construction, which was funded in part by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. We never called it anything but The Carnegie Library.

I received my own library card at so young an age (and so small a stature) that adults could scarcely believe I could write, much less fill out an application and sign my name. There was a Children's section, but it was misnamed: I was not there with any childish intent. I bypassed "Sally, Dick and Jane" for "R is for Rocket," which had an intriguing picture of a gleaming spaceship on its cover. This book propelled me into the orbit of my reading life.

I buried myself in Bradbury, I ate all the Asimov, I swam to the far end of the Science Fiction shelf. Then I studiously assimilated their entire juvenile biography section. Dozens of famous people, in several book bags, would accompany me on long family vacations. Among others, I learned about Andrew Carnegie, who had donated this very building to my very town. Like Carnegie, I wrapped myself in pages and emerged a different person.

Thirty years after this metamorphosis, I took a job in Pittsburgh, in Oakland. On my first day, on my lunch break, I discovered that I was two blocks from the Main Branch of THE primordial Carnegie Library. This thrilled me to literal tears. On my second day, I took an unopened piece of delivered mail to the circulation desk and received a bright yellow library card. Before I had a PA driver's license or local bank account, even before my furniture or family had arrived, I had a library card to the Home Office, my own key to the Mother Ship. I still use it several times a week, and I have resisted all suggestions that I upgrade its fading barcode, and trade in its memorized 14-digit number. I will be proud someday to have physically worn out my library card, and to have contributed my share of wear on the eroded marble stairs.

The phrase FREE TO THE PEOPLE is carved in stone over the door of the Carnegie Library's Main Branch in Oakland, but we know it isn't true. Carnegie, like many philanthropists, was content to build an edifice, but he intended the gift to precipitate a matching commitment from the community for its maintenance and operation. Charleston, Illinois is a small town of limited means, but this village maintained its commitment, and only recently - in 2009 - has their Carnegie Library been renovated, presumably sufficient now for another century of boys on bicycles. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has not remained carved in stone for a century, but has evolved and grown and struggled to remain a lighthouse for the very legacy of public libraries. This service to our city has come at a price, currently borne in largest part by the RAD sales tax, but also supported by fitful measures from city and state.

Hard decisions lie ahead for our Carnegie Library. Their roads of community service and infrastructure may diverge, in the yellow wood of financial downturn. We may be sorry they could not travel both. Those who use the wonderful library should enter the discussion. Only this way can our leaders retake the measure of our commitment to remaining a city where people can use a wonderful library. Let's take the road of excellence less traveled by, and that will make all the difference.

I think I read that in a book.

David Malehorn PhD
University of Pittsburgh, SOM Pathology Dept
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute
Clinical Proteomics Facility Magee

The 10-year-old Carnegie Library card that David Malehorn sent to author Ray Bradbury in a letter thanking him for his earliest inspiration in reading ("R is for Rocket"): "I hold you personally responsible for my lifelong love affair with an entire public library." The author returned the card "with a big autograph in blue Sharpie merrily obliterating the entire bar code."