The solid stone Carnegie buildings have provided the library with the space for a turn-around. In the mid-1980s, many of the upper floors of Carnegie branch libraries were vacant, and Croneberger, the then-new library director, began cooperative arrangements with community organizations by offering an asset that the library had in abundance: office space. Many of the library’s partnerships today in highly technical projects began when nonprofits and social services agencies were invited to use the buildings. Among the first collaborations was the Pittsburgh office for the Foundation Center.
“By joining with other groups and organizations the library reaches a broader section of the community and is able to enrich its program offerings,” states the 1994 annual report. Library managers see the institution as one of several local organizations and foundations, each with its own mission, that are cooperating to make a difference to the community. “We want to be working in community problem-solving,” says the EIN project director. Organizations approach the library for assistance. Local connections are made when staff members serve on boards of local agencies and organizations. Purposeful contacts like these between library staff and community leaders or service providers are common and encouraged by library management.
The cooperation that began with offering office space to social and public service agencies now includes extending invitations to develop homepages on the library’s Three Rivers Free-net. The library offers to nonprofit organizations World Wide Web presence, information, and training in web site building and management. The organizations bring to the library content of local interest, labor to prepare the content, insights into community needs, distribution channels, and public goodwill. Alliances with local organizations have fostered many cooperative projects. For example, the library and Point Park College will open a shared library downtown which will serve as both the college library and as a business branch for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The library also provides support to computer workstations in senior centers and homework assistance centers in public housing to be used for dial-in access to library and Internet resources.
The library has achieved a new level of collaboration with the local United Way, which will move its information and referral service (Helpline) staff into the library to consolidate its regional information collection and dissemination activities. Projects like these have positioned the library to be a leader in promoting public participation in city and county programs.
The Three Rivers Free-net
According to Croneberger, the Three Rivers Free-net is the first community network in the nation to begin within a library. Free-net director Susan Holmes reported in March 1996 that although the Three Rivers Free-net had not yet been formally opened, the community had been very enthusiastic about helping to build it and was eager to use it. Since early March 1996, more than 100,000 people have used the Free-net (http://trfn.clpgh.org). “The public is learning about it through word of mouth [and] calls are coming in every day.” Nonprofit organizations and governmental entities are developing homepages on the Free-net, and links will be made to commercial pages where appropriate. Holmes is training volunteers who will then train members of other agencies to develop their own pages on the Free-net. As additional pages and services develop, the Free-net staff is exploring ways to track not only use but also satisfaction of users.
Bringing the Free-net into homes has had unanticipated benefits for citizens. For example, blind users with voice synthesizers on their home computers are able to use the community information network to obtain restaurant menus, bus schedules, and other community information. This developed naturally from earlier activities: the library has one blind volunteer and is the provider of Blind and Physically Handicapped Services for half of the state. Another user is creating Web pages that explain cancer research to laypersons. Job and career information is expected to be one of the strongest areas of the community network. Since the library has a job information center, the network will be able to draw upon and expand this service using information provided by nonprofits and governmental agencies, and also through links to business community information.
Library administrators hope that the organizations providing Internet services will work cooperatively to develop Internet access for all sectors of the greater Pittsburgh area, with the library taking the lead for nonprofits. Holmes would like to see the library serve as a safety net for organizations that are unable to pay for a World Wide Web presence on a commercial Web server.
Bridging the Urban Landscape
Multiple bridges across three rivers connect important transportation routes in Pittsburgh. Similarly, the library is working to build electronic connections within the community through a project entitled “Bridging the Urban Landscape.” In this project, the library collaborated with Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh (a coalition for technology in education centered in the public schools), to create a database of photographic images of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Photographs from the library’s Pennsylvania Department collections were made available on the Internet via the World Wide Web. The image database is accessible to library patrons throughout Allegheny County through the local library computers that are connected to the Electronic Information Network. In this way, the library is reaching out to schools to support curriculum-related needs. The Bridging the Urban Landscape project was supported by a grant of $551,000 from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce. It will also connect three Pittsburgh schools, the Hill House community center, and the library via the Internet.
Library staff at the main building have been both heartened and challenged by the introduction of work stations to access the Internet. “When you see 16-year-old boys–considered the most difficult group to get to use a library–rushing in at the end of the school day to surf the net,” said one manager, “you know you’re doing something right.” A public services staff member added that, for other audiences, “We first have to demonstrate to a patron that computers can have a positive benefit for them.” As the need for Internet expertise grows among patrons, the staff is challenged to find ways to train themselves and their users. When the World Wide Web is provided more widely at branches, public training will be offered. During National Library Week in 1996, the library provided demonstrations of networked resources on various topics, such as scientific information and career or job opportunities. In this early stage of providing in-library Internet access, there are only a few patrons who seem to be using computers exclusively. In many cases, the Internet is used when traditional library print resources are all checked out (because of school homework assignments on the same topic).
More needs to be done, staff admit, to promote the new services of the community network. As part of the Electronic Information Network, the library will install 1,100 terminals not only in libraries but also in housing projects, kiosks, and senior citizen centers. Senior citizens have begun to use the work stations actively, librarians discovered, by searching Internet resources on pending congressional legislation and e-mailing representatives about their views. Homework help centers also have access to the EIN and are staffed by county employees assisted by library staff and volunteers. Although building a technical infrastructure is important, the library administration acknowledges that it is even more important to get the word out about the new services and to prepare the whole staff and the public to take advantage of the technology.
One of the main goals of the Electronic Information Network project is to even out the library’s information services in all areas, according to planners. “We want the less economically advantaged neighborhoods to have the same level of information available to them, no matter what their tax base,” said one staff member. “We are striving toward good service–free service–to all,” which is simply an extension of the motto that has stood over the doors of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh since its founding: “Free to the People.”
At Hill House community center, described by library administrators as being located in an impoverished area, there is a great deal of interest from the African-American community in having access to the Internet for the empowerment of their community. A recent forum sponsored by the Council on Humanities held at Hill House generated many questions about how that community can become a better informed electorate. At Hill House, one of the public access sites to the Electronic Information Network, people are aware that computers are making a difference in their access to information and in connecting them to persons with similar goals across the United States. This kind of people-to-people connection is especially valuable when the people prefer to remain physically in their own neighborhoods but still have access to the ideas and programs of others.