Whitehall Public Library changes with the times

| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 9:20 p.m.

The computer training classes, children's play area, senior citizen cafe and refugee support programs that bring hundreds of smiling faces through the Whitehall Public Library doors each month likely were not part of the plan 50 years ago, leaders say.

Yet as Whitehall Borough has evolved — with new residents and a changing desire for services — the library has adapted to meet the needs of the community.

“In 1963, the leaders of Whitehall wanted a library to serve its residents. They could not have envisioned how far it has come,” said Whitehall library board of directors President Cris Brady. “To me, it really is the hub of the community.”

More than 160 people gathered at the South Hills Country Club on May 5, 50 years to the day after the Whitehall Public Library was dedicated, to celebrate the community center's golden anniversary. State Sen. Matt Smith and Rep. Erin Molchany, borough leaders, past library staffers and community members were in attendance.

Cast members from this year's six-time Gene Kelly-nominated Baldwin High School musical “Hairspray” provided entertainment and a quilt honoring the library's history, with patchwork of book titles donated by area residents that will be hung on the reference area wall, was unveiled.

This celebration was important for library staffers and residents to come together and reflect on the last 50 years, they said.

“The exciting thing is that this library has maintained and sustained rock solid support from the community,” said library director Paula Kelly, who grew up visiting the Whitehall library each week since childhood. Her mother, Louis Cunningham, worked at the library for more than 20 years, and Kelly has seen the changes at Whitehall Public Library first hand.

“Everything about the library has changed dramatically,” Kelly said.

It was grass roots groups of women that began to urge borough leaders for a library from the town's creation in 1948.

When land was purchased for the borough's municipal building in 1961, space for a library was included in the building's design and years before the library was created a board of library trustees was appointed by borough council.

The Friends of Whitehall Public Library was formed in 1961 and fundraising efforts for a library began, mostly with the help of the Whitehall Century Club, and approximately $20,000 was raised, enough to purchase about 4,000 books for the new library.

Carl Sandburg's “Abraham Lincoln” was the library's first catalogued title.

In December 1962, the library hired its first director, and the library opened on June 1, 1963.

From the days of handwritten cards and 1960s orange flair, much has changed.

“Libraries initially developed as information warehouses,” Kelly said. “Now, although we still lend resources, we're much more of a community hub, where people come together to learn about technology and other things.”

Whitehall Friends of the Library President Faustino Dunckhorst says the biggest change he has seen in the last 16 years that he has been involved at Whitehall Public Library was the integration of the library as a component of the Allegheny County library system, which began in 1995.

“Before, the library user had access only to the 50,000 or so items housed in the library itself. Today, each user has convenient access to the combined resources of all 45 libraries in the system, over five million items,” Dunckhorst said. “One library card gives him or her access to any library in the system, and there is one common catalog and one computer network — the eiNetwork — that connects them all.

“I never cease to be amazed by how well the individual libraries from so many different municipalities cooperate with each other,” he said.

The computer system, or the eiNetwork, which links libraries in the county, also was a big change at Whitehall library, Dunkhorst said.

Adding programs at Whitehall library to meet the changing needs of residents and adapting to a changing world has been vital to Whitehall Public Library's progression, Kelly said. “I really tried to look at the demographic of the community and target services toward them,” Kelly said.

A strategic five-year plan includes a map for the library's near future. But how the next 50 years will shape out, no one can tell.

“The sky is the limit,” Brady said. “What the needs of the community will be in the next 50 years, we cannot envision. However, this community values its library so whatever the needs will be, I know that the staff of the library and the leadership of Whitehall will make it happen.”

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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