By William McCloskey
Area residents might be surprised to learn that the humble little West End Library was home to a major revolution in library science deep in the past when public libraries were a pioneering concept.
Construction of the building began in June 1895, and it was completed and dedicated Feb. 1, 1899. It still stands there in the more-or-less original condition and configuration 122 years later at 47 Wabash St.
What made the West End Library special is that it was one of the very first in the nation to use the open-stack system, which allows readers and borrowers to choose their books from the library's holdings.
Prior to that, customers faced the cumbersome process of waiting in line at the so-called "circulation desk," explaining their needs to a stern librarian, then waiting for workers to fetch the material from the off-limits stacks that formed the highly organized warehouse of library inventory.
That mightn't sound like much but it really was – allowing just-plain-folks to browse and investigate at leisure and likely discover whole new areas of interest. The thing is, many people in those times didn't know what they didn't know, and might not have been well-informed enough to ask the librarian for useful material.
In that era, public education was not mandatory and many children were kept at home to help with housework and sibling-rearing, or to work in the family business. Consequently, the average person might not actually know much of what was going on in the larger world, much less in the realms of art and culture.
Today, we take for granted how to use the library, even with COVID-19 restrictions. But in the early days, few individuals really knew how to operate a public library because it was something entirely new and, in its way, quite revolutionary.
The idea that people might borrow – for free – books, which were at the time more expensive than a pair of shoes, was remarkable, especially in poorer neighborhoods where the family's adults might well be illiterate and have no books of their own.
To build the West End branch, the Carnegie system chose the renowned design firm of Alden, Longfellow & Harlow, Pittsburgh’s leading architects of the era and the designers of the Carnegie Main Branch in Oakland.
It was built on land previously occupied by an ancient mechanized salt works. News reports at the time said: "The work included the taking down of a dangerous stack, which was removed with difficulty."
The library was affordable, with its small, two-story footprint and an original staff of four – one reasonably well-paid librarian and three assistants.
Despite its small size, the West End library was an innovator from its earliest days. Librarian lore has it that "children's storytime" – librarians reading books to assembled kiddos – first was started there. Even today the library is heavily skewed toward child-friendly exhibits, materials and activities.
The branch also houses dozens of handmade replicas of noted buildings in the West End neighborhood. These models include homes, businesses, churches and the library itself. As well, the panels of the storytime room cupboards are a display of local talent. Created years ago by Theodore Hamiel, a former employee, the hand-painted cupboards depict scenes from classic children’s literature and were left intact after a major 2014 renovation of the library.
Though renovated, the branch still retains some of its original features, including the shelving from 1899. There is also a small history collection comprising books, photos and other ephemera directly related to the West End neighborhood and its history.
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh writer, editor and historian. Contact him at PGHNews.firstname.lastname@example.org.