Last month I celebrated my 40-year anniversary working for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I was hired as a clerk, fresh out of college, at the CLP Bookmobile Center. I was armed with an undergraduate degree in library science, qualified to be a school librarian. Alas, school library positions were hard to come by. It was the 70s, the Vietnam war was going strong, and every other person wanted to be a teacher. To be a public librarian, then and now, a master’s degree in library (information) science was required. I was lucky to find a library-related job.
Like many Pittsburghers, except for college, I had never ventured too far away from my Brighton Heights home. The travel radius around my home was tight. I rarely went beyond the North Hills to shop, or to make a visit to my cousins in Penn Hills. Going downtown was always a special treat. Lunch at Stouffers, then shopping at the three big department stores: Horne’s, Gimbels and Kaufmann’s.Sometimes there would be a stop at the Candy-Rama for some special sweet treats. Movies were a draw to town as well, at the Penn, the Stanley, and the Fulton theaters. But I never went to the downtown library. I took the scary bus trip to Main in Oakland (transfers were involved) for my high school research papers.
However, I was a library brat. I had one maiden aunt who worked at the Allegheny Regional library and another who worked closer to home at the Woods Run branch. Books and libraries were in my blood and a habit from my earliest days.
So, working on the bookmobile was an adventure for me. I really loved it! We traveled weekly routes all over the bridges, hills, and valleys of Allegheny County to deliver books to customers from our 3,000 volume mobile libraries. We went and parked at shopping centers and municipal buildings large and small, in mill towns and suburbia. I made friends there that I will always have, though many are now retired.
Bookmobile service was a very personalized, almost boutique service. You really got to know the regular borrowers and often chose books for them based on what you knew they liked to read…without them even asking. The bookmobile was a great training ground. There was no card catalog on board. Staff had to memorize b0th the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress call numbers (CLP switched classification systems in 1972), so you could find the subjects people wanted on the orderly shelves, for both kids and adults.
The bookmobile customers were voracious readers, especially of all kinds of fiction. You really learned all the genres and authors–popular, classic, and literary. We were allowed to read as we drove to and from our stops so it was not uncommon to read a few books each week. This was like feeding steak to a lion.
All of the work was done manually. Registering customers for library cards, taking requests and filling holds–all were done with pen and paper and we kept the information in cardboard shoe boxes. For checking items in and out we used a camera system. Book requests were searched for and laboriously sorted into bins for placement on each of five bookmobiles. Services were very transaction-oriented. We even called the date due cards we put in pockets in the books “trasaction” or “T-cards.” The T-cards had holes along the side like early computer data punch cards and staff used long, thin rods which you skewered into the holes systematically to sort for adjacency of dates. All of the returned T-cards were matched up against the photo logs of check-outs to see if all T-cards had been returned. If not, well, that’s the way we identified if someone had materials overdue, and if they had fines. We kept long lists of names and folks with fines so we could send them overdue notices in the mail.
The world of libraries has changed dramatically over these past 40 years. Computers were introduced in the mid-1970s and have since changed almost every aspect of our library work, our collections, and our services, both behind the scenes and for public service. Our work then and now has been focused on developing a community of readers of all ages. What the public wants from the library is still somewhat the same, but also very different, too. I will talk about these changes from time to time in this blog in future months. People think of the library as a very quiet, traditional place. We anchor our neighborhood, we help everyone. But scratch the surface and you will discover a dynamic, vibrant institution that has constantly changed over time, and is still changing.