The library at 90

A girl looking through shelves of books at the library.
From just a one-room space in the municipal building, the Mt. Lebanon Public Library has evolved into a community center, a place for learning and creating, a small concert venue and much more. This year, on Tuesday, November 15—the 90th anniversary of the doors opening to the public—the library will host a 90th Anniversary Day with treats and giveaways. Judy Sutton, former children’s librarian and Heinz History Center volunteer, will present The History of Mt. Lebanon Public Library at 7 p.m. that night. Photo by John Schisler.

It’s hard to imagine Mt. Lebanon without a library, but it wasn’t until 20 years after its founding, in 1932, that the town found room for one. Literally. One room, on the second floor of the municipal building. Within a few years, the library expanded, but remained in the municipal building until 1964.

Getting started

The Mt. Lebanon Lions Club was the driving force behind the library’s founding. Club members offered to run the library; all Mt. Lebanon had to contribute was the space. In June of 1932 the Commission OK’d the proposal. That summer Boy Scouts canvassed the community for book donations, eventually collecting more than 8,000 volumes. The Lions took the lead, but other community service organizations pitched in with fundraising for the library.

The Mt. Lebanon Public Library was dedicated on November 15, 1932. The following year, the Commission approved a $500 annual budget, funded by Mt. Lebanon’s share of the Allegheny County beer license fees, a new revenue source following the repeal of Prohibition. By 1936 appropriations were increased to $2,500 (about $53,000 in 2022 money).


An illustrated cartoon of a Librarian banning communist books.
In 1953, the library became an ideological battleground in the war between library staff and conservative readers who viewed any books that did not condemn Communism as un-American.

The Red Scare

In the early 1950s, the uneasy Cold War atmosphere in the U.S. resulted in a period of deep distrust of Communist nations. Suspicions of espionage led to a rise in power of extreme anti-communist organizations and extremists like Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led a series of Senate hearings. In the House of Representatives, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted similar investigations.

In 1953, the Red Scare came to Mt. Lebanon, as Kathryn Mitchell, a conservative former economics professor, confronted the library on its perceived lack of “Americanism.” Mitchell’s complaint focused on the book Two Years With the Chinese Communists, an account by physicist William Band and his wife, Claire, of the time they spent with the Chinese during World War II. Mitchell believed the book spread propaganda by focusing on China’s agricultural and economic progress under Communist rule.

The product-of-its-times newspaper coverage—Mitchell was described as “an attractive young housewife, mother and economist” (she had a Ph.D.)—generated these gems from the golden age of headline writing: “Plenty of room for pro-Commie works, little for other side, complaint says” and “Librarians duped by Pinkos.”

Ella Daub was Mt. Lebanon’s longest-serving library director, taking the job in 1938 and retiring in 1966. In her defense of the choice of reading material, she quoted President Dwight Eisenhower on the subject: “Don’t think you can conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”

Mrs. H. G. Woeckner, library board president, was more direct: “Book burning has finally reached Mt. Lebanon,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the Mt. Lebanon News. “We have one dissatisfied user; if the people of Mt. Lebanon are not intelligent enough to know what to read, then we may as well close up.”

The charge resulted in a library board meeting in which Mitchell and about 20 supporters voiced their disapproval and insisted the library have a section on Americanism.

The meeting resulted in the library board appointing a five-person committee to further investigate the issue. The committee issued an eight-page report that concluded—spoiler alert—the librarians were not, in fact, duped by Pinkos.

The committee did find an upside to Mitchell’s teapot tempest, noting in its report “if as a result of this controversy, the awakened interest of our citizens results in adequate facilities being provided in the place of our present crowded quarters, the whole episode will have been worthwhile.”

An ad campaigning to vote yes to open the new library.
After a 1957 attempt to find new space for the library was voted down, an ad hoc citizens group campaigned successfully for a new building. The current building, on Castle Shannon Boulevard, opened to the public in 1964.

The search for space

In 1955, a special committee, formed to solve the space crunch, recommended that Mt. Lebanon buy property for a new building, which it would then lease to the library. The township bought what would become the site of the current library for $25,000. Architect Arthur E. Tennyson designed a two-story colonial-style building with an estimated cost of $350,000 for the building and $75,000 for furnishings. The commissioners approved the plan, provided the referendum on the $475,000 bond issue passed, but it was voted down in the November 1957 election.

The campaign for a new library persisted, and in 1959, the township hired consultants to study library needs. The consultants recommended that a separate and larger facility, adequate to hold 60,000 volumes, be built on the land Mt. Lebanon bought for that purpose in 1955. Another architect, J. Russell Bailey, came up with a scaled-down version of Tennyson’s design that could be constructed for just $315,000. Mt. Lebanon voters approved the smaller bond issue in 1961 and ground was broken the following year. The library’s current home was open to the public on January 27, 1964.

A few decades later, the building at 16 Castle Shannon Boulevard was in need of an expansion. In 1993, commissioners approved a $2.5 million bond issue and the library launched a capital campaign the following January. The campaign defrayed the cost of the expansion by more than $700,000, with additional funding coming from the Allegheny Regional Asset District,  Pennsylvania state legislative grants and other state and federal sources. By summer of 1995, the library temporarily relocated to the former Medical Rescue Team South Authority building on Washington Road and work began on the renovation in October. The library returned to its upgraded home on June 21, 1997.

A small concert with performers in the courtyard at the Mt. Lebanon Library.
The library’s courtyard was completed in 2000. The Friends of Mt. Lebanon Public Library raised most of the money for the project, as well as bringing in a large portion of the cost of the $4.2 million library renovation through a capital campaign. Photo by John Tamerlano.

A community center

In 2018, Mt. Lebanon was one of 17 libraries selected statewide to take part in a two-year series of community conversations designed to help libraries become more relevant and significant in the community. Suggestions from those conversations informed an update to the library’s comprehensive plan—a blueprint for daily and long-term operations—which was completed and adopted by the board in June, 2021.

A woman and her two kids wearing the library’s commemorative 90th anniversary T-shirt in the library.
Mara Dowdy and her children Remy, 5, and Vivi, 11, sport the designs of the library’s commemorative 90th anniversary T-shirt. Photo by John Schisler.

Under the new plan, librarians are looking for ways to provide resources and programs to improve diversity, equity and inclusion education. Making more use of closed captioning and virtual programming is expected to increase program accessibility, and providing programs that go beyond basic literacy to include civic, financial, health and information literacy are other goals of the plan.

“We want to contribute to the quality of life for our patrons and residents, and not necessarily bombard them with more programs, more books, more than everybody else,” said library director Robyn Vittek.

A child painting a rock outside.
Library events extend beyond the walls, such as September’s Secret Garden at Clearview Common, where children used non-toxic “rainy day” paint to create a magical garden that only shows up after a rain. Photo by John Altdorfer.

A big part of the plan is an increased emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programs, with a focus on coding and technology. In 2015 the library opened a maker room, equipped with 3-D printers and other technology for creating things.

In 2018, Matt’s Maker Space, a nonprofit founded by former Mt. Lebanon residents Noelle and  David Conover in memory of their son, Matt, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at age 12, funded a Year of Making at the library. Several organizations, including Pittsburgh Center for the Arts/Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Heinz History Center, the Carnegie Science Center and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, provided programming. The funding has continued since then.

In 2019, the library used donated funds to convert and expand 350 square feet of underutilized office and storage space into a new 600-square-foot Learning Lab on the library’s main level. The Learning Lab was designed for flexible, multipurpose programming and small group instruction space. Plans for the space include offering fiber arts, studio arts, teen programming, technology classes, career development and more.

Last year, the library eliminated fines for overdue items.

In 2019, the American Library Association declared monetary fines “an economic barrier to access of library materials and services,” and issued a resolution urging libraries to actively move away from assessing fines, and urging government entities to strengthen library funding, which lessens their dependence on fines as a revenue source.

Fines were never a big source of income here, accounting for less than 1 percent of the library’s budget. This number used to make up 2 to 3 percent of the budget, but county libraries now offer automated renewals and have tripled the number of times an item can be renewed, from twice to six times, which drastically reduces the number of overdue items and fines collected.

Library Director Robyn Vittek with the ,library’s newest acquisition—an electric bike that pulls a trailer filled with books and other library materials.
Library Director Robyn Vittek with the ,library’s newest acquisition—an electric bike that pulls a trailer filled with books and other library materials. The bike made the rounds of the community’s summer events and was a huge hit. Photo by John Schisler.

Vittek says libraries that have eliminated fines see around 95 percent of items returned within one week of the due date, which is not significantly different than the rate before making the change.

Dancers performing a Chinese Lion Dance on the lawn of neighboring Southminster Presbyterian Church
In observation of the library’s Welcoming Week, a celebration of diversity, dancers performed a Chinese Lion Dance on the lawn of neighboring Southminster Presbyterian Church. Photo by John Tamerlano.

“We believe this policy change will help us better accomplish our mission to create an inclusive, welcoming environment,” she said. “We want everyone to feel welcome at the library.

This library started out as a community effort, and judging by the amount of support we get—not just financial support—it still is,” Vittek added.

She remembers her first impression of the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, as she was undergoing the interview process that led to her hiring in 2015.

“It was about four o’clock on a Friday afternoon in April, and the place was filled with people, busy and engaged. It’s incredible how deeply entrenched this library is in the community. It was next level, like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

This year, on Tuesday, November 15—the 90th anniversary of the doors opening to the public—the library will host a 90th Anniversary Day with treats and giveaways. Judy Sutton, former children’s librarian and Heinz History Center volunteer, will present The History of Mt. Lebanon Public Library, at 7 p.m. that night.

“The library circulated 30,162 books in its first year of operation,” said Vittek. “Last year our total circulation—which includes e-books, CDs, DVDs, and more—was 668,672 items. We are so proud of the library’s continued growth and the ongoing support of our patrons and our entire community. This year we celebrate what we were, what we are, and what we will be.”