Tag Archives: future of libraries

Need An Answer? Ask A Librarian: Part I

Last summer I wrote about my early years working at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and how libraries have changed in the 40 years I have worked here. One of the biggest changes that has occurred is in how we provide information services or reference. Access to technology has played an indelible role in that.

Carnegie Library has emphasized reference and information services from its first days. According to Ralph Munn’s History of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh:

The Reference Department was organized in 1895 by Elisa May Willard…by the end of 1905 it contained 66,000 books and 12,000 pamphlets. It was designed as a depository for U.S. government documents. Significant collections of scientific and technical books and journals were begun in 1898. An early report lists (1) members of clubs, (2) men seeking scientific and technical information, and (3) students, in that order, as the principal groups of users.

In the 1930s two telephone booths were added to the General Reference Department so that librarians could take calls from patrons who had questions at work and from home. In the 1950s, newspapers and journals began to be published in microfilm, eliminating the need to keep brittle newsprint or binding them.

Microfilm: it was -- and is - a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library  (all rights reserved).

Microfilm: it was — and is – a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

Special subject divisions were spun off the General Reference Department on the second floor over the years. The Technology Department moved to new space on the third floor at Main in 1909. In the 1930s, Art, Music, and Pennsylvania became separate divisions with only Music and Art also including circulating books with reference materials. Main remained pretty much in this configuration until the 1980s. Central Lending was renamed Popular Library in the 1970s.

For me, after several years on the Bookmobile and a short stint at the Brookline Branch, I was transferred to Main in 1976 as a Library Assistant. I was assigned to the staff of the “Popular Library” where all of Main’s popular circulating books were housed. But half of my time was scheduled to work with the newly established “Telephone Ready Reference Unit.” Because of budget cuts at that time and the loss of about 1/3 of the librarian positions in all Main departments, the thought was to funnel all telephone calls coming to Main for reference assistance to three Library Assistants at the phone line 412-622-3114. Our work area was about 10 ft. x 10 ft. and adjacent to the complete card catalog in the General Reference Department. If we could not answer a question in 3-5 minutes we were instructed to transfer the call to a professional librarian in the subject departments – General Reference, Science & Technology, Music and Art, Pennsylvania, or to the Popular Library.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vicki and Mary in TRRU.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vickie and Mary in TRRU.

Our role was to identify books, authors, titles and CLP ownership of them. We’d look up basic facts in a core reference book collection of about 150 titles. They included basic encyclopedias, the World Almanac, dictionaries (we had several foreign language dictionaries at hand), business directories, and telephone books from all of the major cities across the USA. (We used these just to look up addresses. We were only allowed to look up phone numbers on the occasion of a telephone operator’s strike). We answered many questions about grammar and quotations, government offices, personnel and statistics, movie stars and films, people, popular and world cultures and sports. During the day, we had most calls from companies, news reporters, and secretaries and after school and in the evenings it was students with homework needs. Readers of all ages called at all times if they were looking for books they were interested in.

It was fun work and challenging. To be good at this job you really had to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in popular culture and current events. And you had to love to read – read fiction and non-fiction and love to read about books and reviews. If you already knew the answer, you had a head start in using the print tools in looking up the answer to verify a source quickly and efficiently. Mary, Vickie and I, the intrepid first three LAs, fulfilled this job to a T. And for CLP, by relying on TRRU to answer the easy questions, the subject librarians had time to develop new computer skills like searching commercial, fee-based indexes like the New York Times Database, DIALOG, ORBIT and others. They learned the principles of Boolean searching (the use of the and / or statements). The databases required an in-depth reference interview to refine the query, and while expensive to use database searching was often a big time saver.

When Bob Croneberger became Director in 1986, his feeling was that there was so much information being generated in the world, library customers would be best served by subject specialists rather than generalists.  So we restructured Main and divided the Popular Library and General Reference into the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments.  I had been going to Pitt’s Library School at night to get my Master’s Degree so that I could become a librarian.  I did in 1980, and worked for 6 years at Main as the Young Adult Librarian.  Then, I was honored to be selected the first Head of the Social Sciences Department as we transitioned from General Reference.  And part of that job was supervising Ready Reference!   By the mid 1980’s the Library had its first online public access catalog.  Now, not only could we look up a book to tell if CLP owned it, we could tell if it were at Main, at a branch library, and if it might be out circulating.  This was a boon to the customer because if they needed a book quickly, they could call in advance before driving to a location armed with hope alone.

Around this time we introduced CD-ROM databases. In addition to paying to have access remote research databases online, we purchased reference databases that were updated monthly as new CD-ROM was sent. Initially these databases were just indexes to journal articles, but gradually over the next 10 years full text articles were included for each search. Students could now come, spend some minutes entering search terms and get complete article print-outs as a result, instead in spending hours poring over the Readers’ Guide, Essays & General Literature Index, and the Applied Science and Technology index to identify articles that met their research needs, then sending requests for journal titles to the closed stacks or Microfilm, reading the articles and taking notes on 3” X 5” index cards or photocopying articles to read at home. Boom – what had taken 3-4 hours at the library to do, now took one hour or less. The convenience was amazing.

Over the next ten years library resources continued to change.  In 1995, in time for the 100th anniversary of CLP,  Social Sciences and the Music & Art departments were at long last renovated.  At this time we introduced public access workstations to access the catalog and the internet for the public and the staff.  The life of the reference librarian was transformed overnight. Web based searching was available and individuals, companies, organizations, government, universities and libraries, and publishers of all types began to put free content up on their hastily produced websites.  By 2000, things were changing again.

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

 

Main Library department’s reference statistics counts peaked at 1,145,567.  More individuals had access to personal computers at work and at home.  During that question bubble we answered many questions that instructed folks on how to find information on the World Wide Web by themselves. Richard and Melissa taught classes on searching the Web.  And soon users were finding their own answers to the easy questions.

That’s a lot to ponder, and there is more to come. In “Ask A Librarian – Part II” I will describe the reference revolution from 2000 to today.

–Sheila

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Happy 40th To Me

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.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

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.

–Sheila

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Pittsburgh’s Ultimate “Reality Show” Seeks Contestants

No, the Eleventh Stack blog hasn’t been purchased by a major network — it’s a metaphor!  Pittsburgh’s ultimate “reality show” — a/k/a the actual future of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — can’t evolve without more input from y-o-u.

In May, the library started a community conversation process that garnered real ideas from actual Pittsburghers about how to create a sustainable library future.  You can read summaries of the four May meetings below — please note that these files open as .PDFs:

May 15th — morning workshop

May 15th — afternoon workshop

May 16th — afternoon workshop

May 17th — evening workshop

Pressed for time? Take a peek at the cumulative summary.  Many people chose to provide feedback online, too, so we’ve summarized that input for you as well.

This is where you come in:  the second round of Community Conversations begins on July 17th.  Consider this an “open casting call” for Pittsburghers of all ages, especially if you weren’t able to participate in May (click here for a video summary of what you missed).

All fired up and ready to play?  The July Community Conversations will take place as follows:

Saturday July 17th
10 a.m. – noon
Stephen Foster Community Center — Lawrenceville
286 Main Street, 15203

Saturday July 17th
2-4 p.m.
Warrington Recreation Center — Beltzhoover/Allentown
720 Warrington Avenue, 15210

Sunday July 18th
2-4 p.m.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Brookline
708 Brookline Boulevard, 15226

Monday July 19th
7-9 p.m.
Union Project — East Liberty
801 North Negley Avenue, 15206

Each session will follow the same format and cover the same territory, so you need only participate in one (repeat attendance does, however, earn you hardcore library supporter props, and library worker love).  Round two consists of:

  • a briefing on the themes developed in Part One
  • a presentation of ideas for the future
  • an interactive discussion of those ideas

It’s the “interactive” part that’s key to the success of the “show;” we need to know

  • which ideas and themes resonate most strongly with you, the library user
  • which ideas are better than others
  • why you prefer the ideas you do, and
  •  if you have any ideas that somehow didn’t come up in Part One

Other things you need to know as a “contestant:”

  • You don’t need to pre-register!  Just show up.  Bring friends.
  • Light refreshments will be served.
  • Children are definitely welcome!
  • Discussion guides for round two will be available here by July 10th

Still have questions?  Maggie McFalls, the library’s Community Engagement Coordinator, will be happy to answer them.  You can e-mail her at feedback@carnegielibrary.org or call 412-622-8877.

Obviously, the future of one of the best public library systems in the known universe (I’m a touch biased) is far more important than anything currently on television.  After all, if we don’t work together to find a sustainable solution, the consequences are more serious than getting voted off an island.  Without access to a good library system, the “biggest losers” are the American dream, the democratic process, and the well-informed citizenry upon which our society is built.

Don’t let it happen on your watch!  Join the conversation, and make your voice heard.

–Leigh Anne

who thinks “Big Bucks, No Whammies” would make a fabulous advocacy slogan, if it weren’t already taken.

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Notes From an Intern

Today’s guest post is from Tanya, one of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Minority Interns for 2009. The CLP Minority Summer Intern program is a grant-funded internship program–courtesy of the Heinz Endowments designed to encourage minority participation in the field of library/information science. The internship offers students of varying backgrounds the opportunity to learn about and experience the internal workings of a dynamic library. The internship was directed toward students who are enrolled either in a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree program.

So what’s a job at the library like?  Maybe you know the library from the few simple clicks it takes you to request the books and DVDs online that neatly end up on a shelf with your name on them that day.  Or perhaps you know the library from the attractive and abundant displays of bestsellers and online booklists created by a team of professional librarians.  Behind the scenes, myriad decisions are made daily just to keep the library humming at a pace that includes hundreds of new library card sign-ups and thousands of items moved around the system every month. 

I have never been witness to more individuals caring about the progress and development of the whole “library family” than during my internship.  Puzzled over a question about electronic resources?  A colleague will be by your side in no time.  Unsure about where to find railroad statistics from 1876?  A reference librarian who has worked with older periodicals will know.  This patient and caring attitude extends beyond customer service into the dealings between colleagues behind the scenes.

While at the Carrick branch, I faced questions like “How do I set up my DTV converter?” and “Can you help me find tax forms?”  I managed to answer both of these to the patrons’ liking.  While in Oakland I made my first booklist and book displays, and selected new titles for the upcoming year from small press catalogs.  My greatest joy, however, was teaching a patron how to request his own materials online.  This made my job worthwhile—the act of teaching people to help themselves is incredibly rewarding.

I met many people during my stay at the library and had many bits of essential information passed on to me.  The statement that stuck with me the most was that of a long-time manager telling me, “The library is the last great social contract.  You come in, you give us your address and phone number, and we let you leave with hundreds of dollars of materials, no questions asked.”  But the truth of the matter is that a lot of time and diligence goes into replacing, repairing and paying for lost, stolen, or damaged items.  What does it say about us—the citizenry—when we accept educational budget cuts in the name of something more important?  Or about the individual who returns an item tattered and dog-eared? 

If you are curious as to where the future of our country lies, morally and as a republic, I suggest taking a look at your local library and its future.  How important is your library to you, and what will you gain or lose should it no longer be “free to the people”?

I can’t be grateful enough to everyone and everything that made my internship possible, from the Heinz grant to my bosses, who trusted me enough to give me  real responsibilities.  In the future, the library will be in the forefront of my mind.  I hope that the library will continue to function in the capacity it does today, including the support of internships like mine.

–Tanya

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