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More than books

| Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007

A library generally is viewed as a repository for books, a center of learning available to all.

In the 21st century, however, libraries have become more than aisles and shelves of dusty volumes, many untouched for decades.

"They are probably our most important public shared spaces," says Karen Christensen, co-editor of "Heart of the Community: The Libraries We Love" (Berkshire Publishing, $49.95). "We don't have village greens, we don't use a Main Street where people hang out. Libraries can be incredibly important."

"Heart of the Community" features 80 libraries from the United States and Canada that met criteria established by Christensen and her husband, co-editor David Levinson. Appearance, architectural, historic significance, and effectiveness in a community were considered for inclusion in the book. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch in Oakland is featured, Christensen says, because it's "a very effective modern library, but also has considerable historic significance and influence."

"We are honored that the authors selected our main library, not only for its historic significance, but also the value of literacy and learning our value of literacy and learning our library brings to the region," says Dr. Barbara K. Mistick, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Tthe Carnegie library system averages 6,000 visitors per day, Mistick says.

"It's true that Pittsburgh loves it libraries," she says. "Our region understands the value libraries bring to the community, both in economic investment and education."

The book illustrates some trends. In the eastern part of the United States, there are more grand classically designed edifices, such as the Boston Public Library, which is modeled after a 16th-century Italian palazzo. Going westward, there are more libraries with modern and even experimental designs, such as the Northwest Reno Library in Nevada, the Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City's The City Library.

"You can see a definite transition as you go across the country," says Christensen, adding that there are also more green, environmentally friendly buildings in the western half of the country.

As many new buildings resemble airport terminals or art museums, there are increasingly fewer libraries that take on the character of their surroundings. But there are still places like Rugby, Tenn., where the Thomas Hughes Library resembles a quaint Southern bungalow, or the Milton H. Latter Memorial Library in New Orleans, a mansion that was home to silent film star Marguerite Clark, that still embody their locales.

But even as they are transformed, sometimes offering beverages and music to visitors -- as the Carnegie's Oakland branch does -- Christensen says the best libraries remember their core function.

"The one thing that I feel strong about is that when libraries forget their primary roles is to provide people with books, for education and enlightenment and entertainment, that's the one thing I see as a mistake," she says.

"They are trying to learn from what bookstores in general have done, transforming themselves very effectively. I think that's just fine. But when they seem to forget their primary purpose and just become a community activity center, that seems to me to be losing a sense of the primary mission."

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