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Oakland: The Public Library:
A Social Leaven in Pittsburgh

Photo of a Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh home library in an 
unidentified neighborhood.


"The Public Library: A Social Leaven in Pittsburgh; with Special Reference to Its Work for Children" by Frances Jenkins Olcott in The Pittsburgh District: Civic Frontage (The Pittsburgh Survey) 1914.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a type of the modern people's libraries that are being conducted in most of the smaller towns and great cities of the United States. It was founded in 1895 by Mr. Andrew Carnegie who provided $6,000,000 for the central and branch library buildings, with the understanding that the library itself should be supported by public taxation and receive an annual appropriation from the municipality.

No city in America offers a better field for the development of a people's library than Pittsburgh, yet no city has had to master more definite difficulties in working out an efficient system of book distribution. Were Pittsburgh level like Chicago or Cleveland, one center for book distribution would suffice for a district half a mile in radius; but because of the bluffs and "runs," it has been necessary in some cases to place two or more such centers within a small area.

Moreover, toward the "Iron City" the tide of immigration is continually flowing, producing crowded living conditions and serious industrial problems. The United States census of 1900 reported two-thirds of the population of Pittsburgh to be foreign born, children of foreign-born parents, or persons of Negro descent. Of the 84,878 foreign born, 33,350 only came from English-speaking countries, and the percentage of illiteracy in the city was 6.3 as compared with 3.9 in Chicago and 4.7 in Cleveland. The census also showed a city of 90,000 mechanics, skilled workmen, and day laborers, as against 34,000 tradesmen, officials, clerks, and so forth, and 6,000 professional men and women.

In the face of these difficulties then, both topographical and racial, the library trustees, aided by a competent librarian, began their work of building up a people's library by a campaign carried on not merely within the walls of the library building itself, but in the field, among the wage-earners of the city.

The Center of the System.
When the library opened in 1895 it carried on its work in one building only. During the succeeding years the work spread rapidly, until at the time of the Pittsburgh Survey the library was sending its books into the people's homes through seven branch buildings and 177 distributing agencies. Hundreds of thousands of volumes are distributed throughout the city, each one of which the library must be able to trace and reclaim. To this end, the library is organized like a business house into departments, under the control of a head librarian.

Four departments, those of reference, technology, and circulation of books for adults and for children, exist for direct work with the public. The first two do not have to face the problem of field work and popularization. Their purpose is to put the published resources of the world into the hands of people who want to know more of a subject than is printed between two covers. But even in these two fields, the development of the library has been directed, on the one hand, toward making what it contains immediately available by telephone or letter to all parts of the city, and on the other hand, toward building up a technical collection especially adapted to an industrial center like Pittsburgh.

The reference department occupies a spacious room in the central library. Readers are encouraged to apply for help to trained assistants whose time is entirely devoted to guiding them in their search. In response to requests by telephone and letter, information is looked up for those who are too busy to visit the library. Reference lists are prepared for the numerous literary clubs of the city and vicinity, covering generally about 750 topics a year. In addition, the reference assistants compile bibliographies for the monthly bulletin issued by the library, the most important of which is a series of lists on local history. The department has valuable files of Pittsburgh newspapers and a large collection of books published in Pittsburgh since 1786. In the field of local history and in architecture, it is especially strong.

The periodical division occupies a separate room, accommodating over 100 readers. Here may be found also dailies from London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Stockholm, and Moscow.

The technology department is devoted to the needs of Pittsburgh manufacturers, engineers, and other technical men. It contains sets of United States and English patents, documents and official patent publications from various countries, including Canada, Germany, and Belgium. The assistants in charge, graduates of scientific institutions, not only help readers to find information but also prepare indexes on current technical literature, and collect and classify trade catalogues and pamphlets. In addition they compile lists on technical subjects and on municipal problems, such as electric driving in rolling mills and foundries, metal corrosion and protection, smoke prevention, water softening, and garbage disposal, which the department prints free for distribution in the city.

Electrical, civil, and mechanical engineers, as well as ambitious men in the mechanical trades use the library as a means of self-education. An example of its valuable work is shown in the case of a stock man employed in a hardware company who had a taste for mechanics. He had an invalid wife and a large family and felt that he must better himself. He applied to his firm for a certain position which would give him an opportunity to work with machinery, but it was refused. He finally obtained a position as fireman in a heating plant, took out a library card, and under the guidance of the technology librarian began a course of reading in mechanics. In three months he showed his library friends an engineer's certificate and he was soon getting nearly twice the salary he had earned when with the hardware company.

To reach the workingmen, and the foreigners and their children in their homes, has been the greatest problem that the library has had to face. The solution of it has been the special charge of the department of adult circulation and the children's department.

Work with Adults.
The first of these departments aims to place books in the hands of adults of all classes. It reaches the public through the large loan rooms of the central library with their open-shelf collection, through the branch buildings, and through sub-stations for distribution in factories, department stores, institutions, fire houses, and other centers.

It is the branch libraries, however, upon which the adult circulation department has placed its greatest dependence in reaching both wage-earners and foreigners. Each branch building is provided with a reading room for adults and one for children, a collection of books for home use, a small reference collection, and files of current magazines and newspapers. No two branch districts are alike, each supplying a community with peculiar social conditions. The following comparison of three branch districts will show significant differences:

Branch A
Nationalities: American, Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Croatian and other Slav.
Social make-up: Workers from cork, cigar, and breadstuff factories in the district, living in crowded quarters; tradesmen; employees of rolling mills, furnaces, pattern shops, foundries, locomotive works, and allied industries, all classes, from the day laborer to the mechanical engineer, being represented at the library.
When times are good the men have little time to read and none in which to come to the library, many of them being reached only through the children who take books home for their parents. During the slack times of 1908 the men out of work filled the reading rooms and drew books regularly for home use.
Branch B
Nationalities: American, Hebrew (German and Russian), Negro, German, Italian, Roumanian, Hungarian, French.
Social make-up: Factory workers (mainly stogy), small tradesmen, peddlers, and hucksters living in unsanitary homes and crowded quarters. Among the Americans no one industry predominates. The Negroes are school children, porters, and waiters.
Neither the branch buildings nor the collection of foreign books is large enough to admit of any special effort to attract more of the industrial class than now use the library. A study club of colored women has been conducted in this branch for nine years with good results. The members are hairdressers, dressmakers, stenographers, teachers, and so forth. The branch co-operates with the public schools and settlements.
Branch C
Nationalities: American, German, Irish, Scotch, Italian, French
Social make-up: Conservative middle class. Civil, electrical and mechanical engineers, clerks, stenographers and small trades people living in comfortable homes. Also employees of the railroads having offices in the district.

The Immigrant as a Reader.
To reach the foreign adult is a difficult matter. As a rule, if he reads, he does not read English. The library had therefore begun a collection of books in foreign languages. The collection, although it has been gradually increasing, is still inadequate.

Mill Men.
Library work with Pittsburgh mill men is as discouraging as it is interesting. The distribution among them is largely through the children, who come to the library with requests of a "good book for pap." Some mill men, however, come to the library centers and many of them have discussed with librarians ways and means of attracting others. One man said: "Well, you see we fellows have to work so hard and for such long hours that we don't have time to read. There are only a few of us who like to read who feel like giving up what few hours we have to it. We want the time with our families or for recreation."

Those men who come, however, are very willing to take with their own books two or three that "the other fellows may like," especially as the library agrees not to charge for the replacement of a book lost in this way. The library posted book lists in mills with small results: it finds that personal work is the only effective way to reach mill men. Books must be taken to them. Twelve hour shifts do not leave a man much desire to improve his mind, or even to use it for diversion.

The librarian of a branch in a mill district reported, "Parents are too busy and too tired to come to the library, and they send their requests by their children." She also stated that with the hearty encouragement of the chief engineer of one of the large steel works a collection of 170 books chosen by the technology librarian was placed in the office of the company. One-third of the books were on blast-furnaces and locomotive engineering. The plan was tried for eight months but it failed to attract the men. Conditions at the mill, overtime work, and the fact that the men were not readers, or that they distrusted the motives of the company, were some of the reasons given. In the same district two deposit stations, opened for mill men and street railway men, were not used by adults. Overwork and adjacent pool rooms were opposing factors too great to overcome.

The Work among Children.
Nearly two decades of experiments among the wage-earners and immigrants of Pittsburgh have gone to show that the solution to the reading problem, as far as the librarian can effect it, lies largely in working with children. Let the library establish the reading habit in a child, teach him to choose good books and to think independently, and he is likely to continue to do both for the rest of his life.

The library organized its children's department in 1898. The work has been largely field work, and has gradually extended to remote parts of the city. Its books are to be found in alley tenements and in the hillside shanties, as well as in the better homes*. The children seize every opportunity to draw books. They come in crowds to the library, they throng its reading rooms. Their minds are plastic and they are eager to read.

The selection of the books is the basis of the entire children's work. These books are read and reviewed by experts. Ethical value, literary style, popularity, content, make-up, all are considered. Few volumes are selected, but those that are selected are duplicated in considerable numbers. They range from the linen picture books for little children and the artistically illustrated books of Walter Crane and Howard Pyle, to the literature, history, art, science, travel, and fiction which every boy or girl should have read before he or she is sixteen years of age. In the effort to reach children of all classes and all nationalities the department works through various agencies: children's reading rooms; public, private, parochial, and Sunday schools; home libraries; boys' and girls' reading clubs; settlements; bath houses; vacation schools, playgrounds, and recreation parks; and juvenile detention rooms. The department thus has the hearty co-operation of many philanthropic as well as civic institutions.

The first floor of the south wing of the central library building and a portion of each branch building are set aside as children's rooms. These rooms are equipped with low shelving, and tables and chairs of proper height. Gay bindings, growing plants, and illustrated book lists give a touch of color which makes the rooms bright and attractive. They are in charge of trained children's librarians, selected not only for their general education and technical training, but also for their special ability to work with children. Their methods are those of informal teaching. The children come and go as they wish, there being no compulsion in their attendance. They come to read for pleasure, as well as to select books for home reading, or to look up material for school exercises.

The different devices that have been tried to lead children to read the best books include personal advice to individual children, and last, but by no means least, story telling.

Story Telling
Story telling is the most successful means of introducing children to good books. The story tellers are members of the library staff or students in the training school for children's librarians conducted by the library. Each year the stories are taken from dramatic and romantic forms of world literature; for example, from Shakespeare, from the Iliad, the Odyssey, Norse Mythology and the Nibelungenlied, King Arthur and the Round Table, Charlemagne and his Paladins. Separate hours are set aside for little children. The stories told to them are taken from legends of places, historical legends, and favorite fairy tales. Most of the children want to read the stories for themselves afterward, and it is sometimes impossible to supply sufficient copies of the books containing them. The attendance at the story hours from the years 1900 to 1910 was 269,600.

Story telling has been introduced also in some of the public schools. The children's librarian works closely with the public and parochial schools in her district, visiting the class rooms and keeping in touch with teachers. She also visits the children's homes and in this way learns of their surroundings and is able to assist them more intelligently.

The children's librarian is indirectly to instill lessons of courtesy, cleanliness, care of public property, respect for the rights of others and many other valuable lessons. A wash-bowl and soap are provided in each children's room and it is not an infrequent thing to see a small boy washing his face and hands, and on occasions his feet, in the wash-bowl.

In spite of the depressing effect of visiting the tenements, bits of pathos and humor filter through the uncouth surroundings, keeping the librarian level-headed and sympathetic even when facing a gang that has come to the children's room for "rough-house." She has to be keen and quick-witted to meet questions and to supply promptly such demands as that for "The kidnapper book--first he chases all the rats away then he steals the children." (Pied Piper of Hamelin).**

From time to time the library has printed lists helpful to mothers in selecting books for their children, and has held exhibitions at the central and branch buildings of books suitable for Christmas gifts. Members of the children's department have spoken at a number of mothers' meetings, and for several years Wednesday afternoon was set aside for consultation with mothers at the central library.

School and Home Libraries
The relation between the library and the city schools is very close. A collection of volumes is made up into small libraries and sent in the autumn to schools which keep them until the close of the school year and use them for class-room work and to lend to the children for home reading.

The home library carries the process of distribution a step farther; it places a small case of books in a child's home. At a stated time each week ten or twelve children of the neighborhood meet in the home and a visitor from the library gives out the books, reads aloud or tells stories, and in various ways makes the "library hour" pass pleasantly and with profit to the children. This method was originated by Charles W. Birtwell, when secretary of the Boston Children's Aid Society. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has since 1898 conducted home libraries in neighborhoods so remote that children could not make use of the public reading rooms. The parents of some of the children speak or read no English, and a great variety of nationalities is represented among these home library groups: English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, German, Swedish, Dutch, French, Italian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Polish, other Slav races, and Negro. The friendly visitors are either members of the library staff, students in the Training School for Children's Librarians, or young people who volunteer their services.

A number of these small libraries have been given by philanthropic citizens and all are under the direction of a separate supervisor who co-operates with the philanthropic agencies of the city, such as the Association for the Improvement of the Poor, the Toy Mission, the juvenile court, settlement houses, the Bath House Association, church missions, and the Kindergarten Association. Kingsley House Association each summer takes groups of home library children to its country house, Lillian Home.

Reading Clubs and Books in City Playgrounds
In districts where the supervisor of home libraries finds it impossible to organize libraries in the children's homes, she establishes reading clubs. Schools, bath houses, the detention rooms of the Juvenile Court, a Jewish synagogue, and even the Pittsburgh post-office and a room in a large manufacturing establishment have been the meeting centers of these reading clubs.

The management of these clubs is much the same as that of the home library groups, with the exception that the members are usually working girls and boys, such as newsboys, special delivery boys, telegraph messengers and factory and mill workers. The library also does a special work among boys' gangs, organizing troublesome street boys into reading clubs. As Jacob Riis said, "It is through the Boys' Club that the street is hardest hit. In the fight for the lad it is the club which knocks out the 'gang' and with its own weapon--the weapon of organization."

Since 1899 the Playground Association of Pittsburgh has co-operated with the library in the distribution of books. Each summer the library sends collections to the playgrounds, and assistants go from the library to issue the books and to tell the children stories. Now that the Playground Association has opened recreation centers in winter as well as in summer, it provides the necessary reading rooms in its new buildings.

The annual circulation of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh passed the million mark by the close of 1908, while the roll of registered borrowers the same year was well toward 100,000. This registration does not include the membership in the home libraries, boys' and girls' reading clubs, playgrounds, or the enrollment in the public, private, parochial and Sunday schools to which the library sends books, nor does it show the number of readers who use the reference and technology departments.

Without the close co-operation and sympathy manifested by educators, social workers, representatives of technical societies, and other interested citizens, it would be impossible for the library to reach the many homes into which its books now go. In the process of their distribution they illustrate Lord Rosebery's saying that "books are the greatest democratic agent of the world." Through books speak history, the acts of great men, the force of the world's thought and civilization. Ancient and medieval libraries were the repositories of this heritage, but it has remained for the progressive public libraries as we know them today, to make books accessible alike to rich and poor, young and old, and thus to become an educational force and an important socializing factor in modern life.

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