Oakmont Carnegie Library History
By Cheryl Zentgraf and Stephanie Zimble
The Early Years, 1899-1925
In 1899, the Oakmont School board passed a resolution to “provide a place and establish a free, non-sectarian public library for the general use of residents of this district.”
In an effort to carry out this resolution, the Board contacted Oakmont resident, L.M. Morris, who wrote to his cousin seeking financial assistance. His cousin, Andrew Carnegie, responded by welcoming L.M. Morris to the “sacred guild of library builders.” Mr. Carnegie offered $20,000 in aid as long as there was a local commitment of $2,000 for maintenance.
The School Board proceeded to elect six prominent Oakmont citizens to serve as the Board of Trustees for the Library, L.M. Morris among them.
Andrew Carnegie then corresponded to the Trustees saying “Gentlemen, having been assured that the library would be maintained by the Public Authorities, I am delighted to give you twenty-five thousand dollars.”
The Trustees then purchased from Mrs. Salinda Anderson a plot of ground at the corner of East Railroad Avenue and “E” Street for the site of the library for $2,500. Architects, Alden and Harlow, were instructed to draw up building plans for the library. Due to the rise in the cost of labor and materials, the first set of plans were found to be too expensive. The Trustees ordered a second and final set of plans which outlined a building 32’ x 76’ in size.
In 1900, the School Board received bids for the construction of the library building from five contractors. The successful low bid of $17,956 was awarded to Oakmont contractor William Braithwait.
In 1901, the Board of Trustees authorized the purchase of 2,603 volumes and a number of periodicals at a cost not to exceed $3,000. Oakmont resident Miss Cora B. Morris was elected to serve as the first librarian and her salary was $50.00 a month.
Miss Morris served as librarian for eleven years and during her employment, the library basement was rented to First National Bank, utilized for meetings by Oakmont Borough Council, and was used for a short time as a fourth grade school room.
In 1912, Miss Blanche McIlvaine of Oakmont was named librarian at $70.00 a month. During her term as librarian, the Oakmont Visiting Nursing Mission and the Socialist Party held meetings in the library basement. The library was closed for a brief period by the Board of Health due to the prevalence of scarlet fever in the Borough.
The School Board, which assumed control of the library by dissolving the Board of Trustees, ordered the library to open on Sunday afternoons from 2:00 pm to 7:30 pm. The librarian was compensated $3.00 per Sunday and the janitor $1.00 for Sunday.
When Miss McIlvaine died in November 1922, Mrs. Anna D. Schoonover held the position of librarian until June of 1923. The Library Committee of the School Board then secured the services of Miss Laura C. Bailey of Wilkinsburg to be librarian at $150.00 a month. It was at this time that the first typewriter was purchased for use by the librarian.
In 1925, the janitor and several library assistants reported to the Library Committee that they were “severing their connections with the unpleasantness of the Librarian, Miss Bailey.” One assistant referred to Miss Bailey as “temperamental, cold, unsympathetic and full of notions.” Letters relating to Miss Bailey and her notions remain in the library archives to this day.
The School Board questioned some of Miss Bailey’s actions, and recommendations were made to her regarding work hours, the ordering of supplies and the use of the library. During the winter months, Miss Bailey was residing with Oakmont resident, Mrs. Emma Witherspoon. It was Mrs. Witherspoon who rose to the defense of Miss Bailey, writing to the Library Committee that she “didn’t want to make this a public scandal, but that I know dozens of the best taxpayers in this town who would shout with one voice: ‘Don’t fire Miss Bailey’.” In fact, a petition circulated, signed by people who did not wish her to resign. This petition also remains in the library archives. The Library Committee did not fire Miss Bailey, but within three months she resigned her position.
Sara Moot Boyle, 1926-1968
December 1925 was an important month at the Library, as it marked the employment of Miss Sara Moot, later Sara Moot Boyle, of Oakmont as Librarian with a yearly salary of $1,600. Sara would remain with the library for 42 years. The Oakmont Carnegie Library began a new era of growth, vitality and community involvement with the hiring of the first in a series of enthusiastic, community-involved professional Librarians who were dedicated to making the Oakmont Carnegie Library one of the finest libraries in Western Pennsylvania.Elementary and high school students were encouraged to use the Library during school hours. Students would walk to the Library from The Fifth Street and the Gilmore schools, both of which were located at Fifth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Library was kept open until 9:00 in the evening to provide access for the general public. A telephone was installed at the Library so that people could call for information—a radical idea at the time.
In 1929, the basement of the Library was made available to local groups, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion held regular meetings in the basement rooms. (A minor fooforaw developed when it was publicized that the Ladies were playing cards after the meetings—bridge and pinochle. The problem was resolved when the ladies agreed to eliminate the card games, and their regular meeting continued in the basement for a number of years).
During the 1930’s, the School Board, which was also the operating Library Board at the time, used the basement rooms as a kindergarten room. A problem developed initially when the janitor complained about the extra work created by the kindergarten classes, but the School Board resolved the problem quickly by voting to increase the janitor’s salary from $65 to $85 per month.
In 1966, the supervision of the Library was transferred from the School Board to the Borough of Oakmont. The value of the Library to the community was recognized by the Borough Council and the Council has always made a special effort to appropriate funds necessary to maintain the Library as a healthy, vital part of the community.
In 1968, after 42 years of service to the Oakmont Library, Sara Boyle retired. Sara Cristof was hired and served until 1973.
Elizabeth Carlin, 1974-1989
The growth of the Oakmont Library continued with the hiring of Oakmont resident Elizabeth Carlin in 1974. It was during her tenure that the Library was designated as “a building of architectural and historic importance to the community” by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. A plaque was placed at the entrance to commemorate this event.
Working with the Library Board and the Oakmont Borough Council, Mrs. Carlin spearheaded the restoration of the main floor to its 1901 appearance. The restoration program began in 1979 and was successfully completed in 1983. Funding for the project was primarily accomplished by generous contributions from Oakmont residents, businesses and service organizations; with additional funding developed from corporate donations, charitable foundations and government agencies.
Mrs. Carlin had a goal of making the Library more accessible to older residents. With the help of Assistant Librarian Marie Palazzi Richter, they secured state funding to establish an extension of the Library at the Riverview Community Action Center. She established a home outreach program to deliver library materials to those who are unable to visit either of the Library facilities, a program that is currently managed by librarian Dixie Anderson; and, with the assistance of the Oakmont Lions Club, an extensive Large-Print Library was developed.
With funds donated in memory of Jules Palazzi, an Oakmont resident who was a major influence of the Library restoration project, a block of black granite inscribed “Oakmont Carnegie Library” was placed on the Library front lawn in 1988. This sign was moved in 2009, and is now placed outside the current entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Elizabeth Carlin retired in 1989, and continued to show her interest in the workings of the library until her passing in 2014.
Janice Beiber, 1989—2005
Responding to requests from the community, Jan Beiber served as the catalyst for organizing a support group for the Library, and appropriately on April 1st 1992, the Friends of the Oakmont Library, known affectionately as FOOLs, was established. The FOOLs continue to provide funding for various library programs and activities, including the annual Summer Reading Program.
Librarian Jan Beiber and her staff worked diligently to prepare the Oakmont Library and Oakmont residents for the twenty-first century. Library patrons became able to access the internet on computers located throughout the library, as well as to be issued Electronic Information Network library cards. These cards enable patrons to utilize the services and materials of other libraries on the network, a consortia of Allegheny County’s public libraries.
Working tirelessly, Jan Beiber and her staff, with only occasional weeping and gnashing of teeth, implemented a computerized check-in and check-out system in 1995 that not only facilitates the daily operation of the library, but provides access to the countywide electronic catalog.
Sunday hours were once again established, making the library available to the community seven days a week.
In 1998, the Library Board hired Integrated Architectural Services to create a plan to expand the library. The shelves were full and study tables gave way to PCs. Expansion and renovation became necessary as the building approached its 100th birthday. Funds were raised in the community and a $1.4 million bond was approved by 74.8% of voters in May 2003. This new construction project began in 2003 and added approximately 6,000 sq. ft. to the building. The goal of the project was to expand the scope of the library’s facilities, services and programs, and at the same time preserve its historical and architectural integrity, ensuring accessibility for all users and providing expanded reading, display and programming areas for our patrons.
Shannon Dunn, 2006-2009
December 2006 saw the completion and dedication of the expanded Oakmont Carnegie Library. Our new space enabled the staff, led by Director Shannon Dunn, to increase the available shelving space as well as the number of computer stations within the library. The addition of a ramp and elevator made the building completely accessible, and downstairs meeting rooms were added that are utilized regularly by community members and staff. The Children’s Department was expanded, and a Young Adult collection was developed.
In addition to maintaining and beautifying the new building, Mrs. Dunn put her efforts into obtaining funding for library programs from alternate sources, applying for two separate grants that were then awarded to the library. With the hiring of reference librarian and archivist Stephanie Zimble, the library applied for and received a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to facilitate the scanning of our large collection of historic images. Under children’s librarian Kristin McGuire, the library received a Family Place grant, also from LSTA, allowing for renovation of our Children’s Department. Mrs. Dunn left the library in 2009 to be with her daughter Lucy, the namesake of the FOOL’s Lucy’s Books for Babies program.
Beth Mellor, 2010 –
The Oakmont Carnegie Library continues to move forward under our current director Beth Mellor. Mrs. Mellor brings years of experience in the library field to the position, and with the help of our dedicated and enthusiastic staff will guide the library into the future while remaining true to our more than 100 year history.
2010 saw the release of the online Oakmont Carnegie Library Historical Image Collection with the University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Research Library, as well as the reimagining of our Children’s Department in conjunction with the Family Place grant. Through the Masters in Library and Information Science program at the University of Pittsburgh, the staff has had the opportunity to work with student interns, helping to guide and shape the future of our profession.
The range of services offered may have changed since we opened our doors in 1901, but the mission of the Oakmont Carnegie Library remains to enrich the community through lifelong learning, creativity, and recreation. We envision the Oakmont Carnegie Library as a welcoming community hub of intellectual, leisure, and technological resources, as well as educational programs for residents of all ages.
Note: A special thanks to former Superintendent Rodger Knapp of the Riverview School District for his cooperation in making available minutes of the Oakmont School Board from the past.