On April 7, 2006 a lightning bolt of Doc Brown proportions caused serious damage to the Carnegie Library’s ailing, but historic, Allegheny Regional branch. The library, on Pittsburgh’s North Side, has been closed ever since, and public services have been relocated to the new Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Allegheny location. Lots of important work, however, is still going on behind the scenes at the damaged location.
Originally known as the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny (the first tax-supported Carnegie Library in North America), the Allegheny Regional Library has, for the past four years, been used as CLP’s Depository — a place where orphaned, historical, and otherwise important material can be preserved, cataloged and stored as necessary. The goal is to shape the collection into a relevant and accessible one.
Collections that would fit better in another institution’s collection have been sent to new homes. Many pre-1923 monographs and journals are being digitized locally as part of an IMLS grant that the library received to digitize materials related to Pittsburgh’s iron and steel industry. These items have been selected by a team of Main Library staff, and metadata is being produced by our cataloger-librarians; once it’s ready, our IT staff will upload the digitized images to a searchable, online storage space. These will be available both through the catalog and and at a special Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh website, where the public will be able to view documents and comment on them using social network tools developed by IT staff.
Librarian and conservation coordinator Jackie Mignogna says, “We’re always trying to find good fits for things that don’t relate to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s mission or collecting policy anymore. We have also uncovered some great items to re-introduce to our own collections. ” This is true library work: conservation and access. It’s unrealistic to think that everything can be saved, or that it all belongs in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the 21st century. Which of these items reflects the needs of our users and our community? These are the questions librarians struggle with daily.
In order to make the depository collection accessible, staff must not only catalog everything, but also clean and repair/stabilize the items so customers may, once again, have the opportunity to access the information. Most items were once listed in the old card catalog, but never barcoded for access through the online catalog. Therefore, customers could not readily find them without a librarian’s assistance. All of this work is being done by a committed team that includes Janet Templer (cataloging and access), Jackie Mignogna, Tara Walsh, and Sun Young Kang (conservation, preservation, and access), as well as a crew of other library staff and volunteers. These efforts are overseen by Gladys Maharam, former deputy director and current project coordinator.
From an incredible collection of journals dating from the 1800s to an assortment of books from the Vatican sure to make any Dan Brown fan salivate, the depository collection is chock-full of the stuff you think of when you think “library.” Several hundred turn-of-the-last-century art folios are being stored in acid-free protective boxes. Thanks to the depository staff, these rare books (some of the earliest pieces of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s collection) will be moved to state-of-the-art storage in the renovated East Liberty branch.
Recently I was lucky enough to volunteer for an afternoon at the depository, wiping soot from hundred-year-old trade journals with a dry sponge. I came to appreciate how hard these folks work to save their collection; as Jackie Mignogna told me, “It’s dirty work…but someone has to do it.”
Editor’s note: Some names were omitted for privacy reasons. If you are involved in this project, and wish to be acknowledged, please leave a comment. All photos copyright Corey Wittig, 2010.