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Turning a page on Carnegie

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Sorry, Mr. Carnegie, Pittsburgh can't afford your gift anymore. This may be a first in the annals of philanthropy.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh announced a painful hit the other day.

It will shut down four neighborhood branches in 2010 and merge two others. That's something like a third of the total, though not the busiest.

Thirty jobs will disappear. Systemwide hours will shrink 28 percent. And all, of course, to save on costs. Government keeps getting admonished to cut, cut. Well, here it is.

Yet as trends are running, another budget squeeze looms the year after next.

This is bad in so many ways, including (it's not too far a stretch to say) for business. We will be less of a community that reads. It is a dumbing down in job readiness.

With all the influences that turn the minds of young people to mush nowadays — too much television, computer games, ear-blasting music — Pittsburgh will have fewer places to borrow books. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) wouldn't approve.

The immigrant boy who became the world's greatest steelmaster credited his rise, certainly his start, to literature freely loaned from the shelves of a generous neighbor. Decades later he donated 2,400 libraries, but with a shrewd Scotch condition. He'd give the buildings, the communities had to stock the stacks. And keep them circulating.

That's what today's Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh can't seem to manage as in the past. It hopes to save $1.6 million, and balance a $22 million 2010 budget, by closing branches in Beechview, West End, Hazelwood and Lawrenceville, combining Carrick and Knoxville, taking other cuts, and raising fines and fees.

It's all pretty painful. Libraries informally serve as community centers. A neighborhood value is involved.

But the economic realities are brutal. The city of Pittsburgh, itself officially distressed, gives its library system only $40,000 a year. Harrisburg's protracted budget standoff could end up slashing 30 percent or more from libraries across the state.

The Carnegie's lifeline is Allegheny County's Regional Asset District, fed by a 1 percent add-on to Pennsylvania's 6 percent sales tax. But RAD's $17.6 million to the Carnegie Library system is frozen at last year's level. No one in the arts world complains publicly, but RAD took on huge bond obligations to build stadiums some years back. Books, music, art, all of that, have to share what's left.

In fairness, the libraries due to close aren't as bustling as in the more bookish days gone by. Many patrons make a beeline for the computers and their own e-mails rather than the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and Hemingway The busiest of the four branches circulated only about 62,400 items last year, an average of 200 or so per day.

Still, some of these landmarks date to the 1890s. The fabulous Andrew himself might have cut the ribbons. He'd tell today's kids, "Get yourself to a library, even if it means walking farther. Look what books did for me."

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