Libraries for Life

Exceptional, award-winning libraries of the Carnegie Library System

By Becky Spevack Posted on January 3, 2013


In 2011, the Design Pittsburgh jury awarded another Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) project an Honor Award for the renovation and expansion of a branch library within the system.  This is the fifth such award granted over the past eight years, and does not take into consideration awards and accolades given at the national level.  What lies behind this recent dedication to these key community spaces?

It all started in 2001 with the CLP’s Libraries for LIFE Capital Campaign, raising money to renew and reinvigorate libraries as neighborhood centers, with a focus on energy efficiency and quality design as a way to look to the continued and future relevancy and functionality of these places.

The Libraries for LIFE Capital Campaign was first announced in July 2001, which began the process of adapting 19th century buildings to 21st century requirements. At the time of the announcement, the average age of the buildings was 79 years old, no building was in complete compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and all were in need of repair and renovation. Since the Campaign was announced 11 years ago, 11 projects have been completed, each breathing new life into the communities they serve, many of which have gone on to be granted awards for their innovative and insightful designs. But what has made this campaign so overwhelmingly successful? Columns caught up with some of the architects involved, and they all touch on the fact that the client played a key role. “The large number of projects that have won awards speaks to them (CLP) and their dedication and vision,” says Anne Chen, AIA, principal of EDGE studio, who recalled working with the CLP’s staff of talented and experienced individuals. “Their vision and intent remained consistent over the life of the campaign, including a commitment to local talent and sustainability.”


Karen Loysen, AIA of Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects agrees. “They had a strong internal focus on good design. They wanted to raise the bar for libraries to be a major part of the community.”

Even though new media has changed the way a library functions and the role it plays, it still holds intrinsic value as a place, and the CLP wanted to ensure that that value was made evident through the design of the new and renovated buildings. One key feature considered during the design phases was daylighting – taking old, somewhat dreary layouts and creating bright spaces full of natural light and open floor plans, reinventing the appearance and environments. “The library is, in some respects, one of the last public spaces left,” postulates Chen. “They embraced the idea that space matters – comfortable, exciting, inviting – and how one occupies that space.”

One of the earliest renovations took place at the Brookline branch, a narrow, deep storefront. Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects tackled this by raising what was once a drop ceiling to give the sense of a bigger, more open space, as well as adding rooftop skylights. They also expanded into the library’s basement, which had previously been a dark, closed, unoccupied space. The installation of a light wall brought natural light into this windowless space and created an expanded children’s section, doubling the library’s square footage. This renovation went on to be named “Library of the Year” by AIA National in 2005.


The Woods Run branch, also renovated by Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects, was another closed, dark building. What was once an almost windowless brick box was completely overhauled with a glass wall that runs the length of the front of the structure. Now, no matter where you are in the library, you are engaged with and aware of the outside world.

Another of the early renovations to reinvent a space and how the public interacts with it was EDGE studio’s work with the Main branch. When originally designed, the service model was very different, and was expressed with many small rooms. To convert the space to a more modern model, EDGE removed walls – “obstacles to the browsing experience” – to create an easily navigable, open plan. The redesign also included a new outside courtyard, creating a whole nother different kind of space for patrons. “The spaces (both inside and out) create the ability for community engagement in a multitude of ways,” says Chen, “and the success has been rewarding.”


The community has played a key role in this process, every step of the way. Of the 11 libraries, two (Homewood and South Side) were historic renovations, in large part because of the community’s focus on each building’s historical significance. But the CLP was not afraid to embrace a new, more modern looking library. They understood that the space is about how people live today, as well as how they will live and interact over the next decade.  As each branch began the process of renewal, the CLP reached out to the community, engaging in meetings and dialogue to understand the needs of the individual neighborhoods and patron-base. Ideas identified during such meetings were often incorporated into the designs.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has been a resource to the citizens of this region since 1895. Its commitment to “inspire… life-long learning, and civic participation” is readily apparent when visiting any of its 19 branches, in the friendly, helpful manner of staff and availability of materials and resources. But the CLP has gone a step further, by continually striving to provide the communities it serves with exceptional, engaging, and evolving libraries. Its dedication to local talent and sustainability speaks not just to good buildings, but to a great future.

Allegheny and Squirrel Hill branch images: Massery Photography, Inc.; Hill District branch image: Marc Soracco Photography

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3 Responses to Libraries for Life

  1. What a wonderful focus on one of Pittsburgh’s true gems… Mr. Carnegie would be proud of how his libraries have grown and transformed over time, a reflection of his pioneer spirit.

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