The Carnegie Library

The children’s department at Carnegie Library’s main branch has always been a wonderous place. This month is Library Lovers’ Month, so go check it out.

The children's room at the Carnegie Library’s main branch in the early 20th century.

Recently, for an episode of my weekly TV show, I interviewed Barbara Mistick, president and director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (before she announced she’ll be leaving in May), and I wondered about how many firsts might be connected to our local libraries. Remember: Andrew Carnegie built his first library in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, before any of our Pittsburgh-area libraries opened their doors.

Mistick mentioned the children’s department the main branch of the library in Oakland was really important, and I thought, Hmm, could it have been the first?

If you really want to know the truth, go to the Pennsylvania department (two floors above the children’s). The librarians there are stellar, and since I called ahead with my question, they set aside several documents.

The First Annual Report for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh from 1897 contains some interesting info: “We now come to a subject of greatest importance. No provision was made for a separate children’s department in the planning of our library building.” The main branch opened on Nov. 5, 1895. The report continues, “The trustees, however, early saw the need of such a department, and on Feb. 1, 1896, one of the rooms previously used for periodicals was turned into a children’s reading room … 28,823 children used this room during the first year of its existence.” Obviously, it was a big, important idea.

But other research tells me the Robbins Library in Massachusetts claims it had a free library for children in 1835.

The Pennsylvania department librarians also suggested a book from 2001 titled Tradition in Transition by Carol Bleier, who reports that a young woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., named Frances Jenkins Olcott, was hired to start the Carnegie’s children’s department, and Olcott did a bang-up job.

Bleier writes, “When Frances Jenkins Olcott started the children’s department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, there was no precedent to follow, since there was no other library in any city with an organized children’s department.”

“Organized” seems to be the crucial word.

Bleier states, “Olcott not only started the children’s department, she also created an educational system for children’s librarians at the turn of the century, modeled after Dewey’s New York State Library School. It evolved into the present School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the consistently top-ranked, largest and most-diversified schools of its kind in the United States and in the world.”

So we may not have the first, but we may have had the first really good one, carefully managed and “organized” by a caring staff of well-trained librarians. We taught the rest of the world what makes a quality children’s department.
February is Library Lovers’ Month. If you haven’t been there lately, go check something out.

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