Sewickley Herald honors: Library director leads through growth, change
In an ever-changing environment focused on technological advances, the Sewickley Public Library has evolved, bringing books, technology, programs and meeting space to the thousands of people who use the facility each year.
Leading the way through all that change is library Director Carolyn Toth, who has been selected the Sewickley Herald's Woman of the Year.
In the nearly 16 years Toth has spent as director, the library has seen usage grow — not only among print circulation, but among DVDs and CDs, she said. The center has expanded its reach to offer meeting space to outside groups for educational programming and other needs.
Toth came to the library in 1998, during the midst of a construction project that expanded the library to its current footprint.
“Not only was I getting acquainted with the building and the people, but I was picking colors for the carpet,” she said.
Since the center's re-opening in the late 1990s, Toth, 56, said technology has played a big role in the library.
“Librarians spend oodles of time showing people how to use computers,” she said.
“Technology was my first focus. Being in a community like Sewickley, technology better be somewhat cutting edge. Wireless was huge. Having the desktops with — this is going to sound simple, but it's important — Microsoft Word and the suite of programs so you could help people look for jobs or write a resume also was huge.”
Circulation of printed material remains a key piece to the library, but Toth said traffic into the facility has expanded, with many individuals using the library for meetings or computers.
It is one of the reasons Toth said more space is needed.
“We need more space, not only to accommodate people who are there to study, but to meet,” she said. Some people come to create resumes, search for jobs or because they have no computer access at home.
Others, she said, use the library as a place to do business.
“People can get so isolated on computers at home, that we find we have a couple people who come to the library to use it to accomplish their business goals,” Toth said. “They just want to be around people.
“What are we? Well, yeah, we're still circulating books and DVDs. But we're a lot more than that.”
While books, libraries and technology all have been a focus to Toth, she said she never imagined spending her life working in a community library.
A native of Bethel Park, where her love of books and libraries began, Toth came to the Sewickley Public Library from the Community Library of Castle Shannon, where she served as director.
That role was her first step into management of public libraries — and her first job in a community library, she said, having graduated from library school when she was about 30 years old.
Toth said she envisioned a career in finance, but that didn't work.
“I thought I would work in the finance field somehow,” she said. “I tried it for six months and I hated it.
“I thought about library school, but I just couldn't. That very quiet (and) what I perceived as rigid lifestyle wasn't me. I'm very much a free spirit.”
She found herself enjoying a job at a Walden Books store.
“That was really cool working in the retail field,” Toth said. “When those new books came in, you were on top of it. I wanted to move up through that corporation. But I had gotten married and my husband (at the time) didn't want to leave Pittsburgh.”
Toth also had retail experience at Horne's, but said a life of working in retail didn't seem appealing, either.
“I relented and went to library school. It was nothing like I thought it would be. This is when the Internet was becoming huge.
“It was the best decision I ever made.”
But Toth said she worried having a career in something she was passionate about might not be lucrative financially. Around the time, Toth said, she gave birth to her daughter, Lindsay.
“I worried because librarians did not make a lot of money,” she said. “You weren't entering librarianship to make a lot of money. You were entering it for the love of research, literature or history — who knows why a lot of people do it?”
While in Castle Shannon, Toth said, a book came across her desk titled “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.”
“I looked at that title and thought, ‘That's what's happening here,'” she said.
Her retail experience has helped focus libraries to offer a broad range of offerings, she said.
Wedged between the Mt. Lebanon Library and nearby Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Toth said, in Castle Shannon, she experimented with evolving the library from a focus on reference material to highlighting popular items.
“Up on the hill was Mt. Lebanon library, which is very busy and sophisticated. And I'm thinking, ‘I can't compete with that. Do I even want to compete with that? So what will my speciality be with having Mt. Lebanon so close?' One of my philosophies was to make Castle Shannon very customer friendly and more of a popular reading library.
“So when we got the tough reference questions, we would either try to answer them with our limited resources, call the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh or send them up to Mt. Lebanon. Where I spent the money on the collection was with popular nonfiction, popular fiction, movies, a little music.
“We were the 7-Eleven to their Giant Eagle and that suited us fine.”
Toth said she has followed a similar philosophy during her tenure at the Sewickley library, offering more movies, music, and opening the library to nonprofit groups to use for meetings.
She attributes the cooperation and increased use to the library staff, its board of directors and the community.
“Even if you don't check out a book, your tax dollars support that,” she said. “So we should be able to offer something you can be able to use in that building — whether it's a meeting space, a book or a computer.”
But as book stores such as Walden and Borders have closed, and the remaining ones struggle, Toth said libraries are seeing increased usage.
“In my lifetime, I can't see where you'll never have a book in the library,” she said.
“But I do wonder as my daughter's generation starts reading more on tablets, what will happen?”
In an appeal to the Quaker Valley school board to consider offering more financial support to the library, board of directors President Wayne Murphy praised Toth for expanding the reach of the library to beyond the Sewickley Valley.
About 45 percent of Sewickley Public Library cardholders live outside of the 11 municipalities that make up the Quaker Valley School District, Toth said.
Patrons will help libraries evolve just as they have for decades, Toth said.
“What libraries are really good at are being early adopters of new formats to try, and in this community, that is important,” she said. “So we're willing to try technology. But, our budget is only so big, so how much do we devote to print and how much do we devote to video and how much do you devote to downloads, databases? You reconsider every year and look at your use.
“Everything in my world is about people,” she said. “At the end of the day, it's about you.”
Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or firstname.lastname@example.org.