Library is the Pied Piper for local children

by Allison Keene

Armed with a felt board, maracas, a stack of picture books and a few sing-alongs, Jessica Appleman welcomes the group of toddlers and parents assembled in the Carnegie Library’s story room on Saturday morning.

The children, ranging from new-born to six years old, sit in their parents’ laps or on the carpeted floor. They watch Jessica with wide eyes.

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Children’s librarian Jessica Appleman smiles next to a shelf of books.
Photos by Mike Lynch

“Welcome to story time!” she sings, throwing her arms wide. “As always, we’re going to start with a song.”

Carnegie Library is a social center in Squirrel Hill. Located on Murray Avenue, it offers free programs for children, teenagers and adults and provides residents with activities and resources that expand well beyond checking out books.

Appleman is a children’s librarian and conducts one of the library’s most popular programs: story time.

Carnegie Library offers story time for infants, toddlers and school-aged children during the week. Between 30 and 75 people fill the story room, turning the back half of the Children’s section into a sea of strollers, diaper bags and picture books.

Story times merge fun activities such as felt story boards and sing-alongs with a weekly early literacy skill such as letter awareness or narrative skill. Even though the program is educational, Appleman says this is not its focus.

“We don’t want to make that the big main purpose of story time,” Appleman said. “Story time is fun.”

The children’s section also runs after-school and summer camp programs. Snacks, board games and video games are all provided, as well as access to a community garden. Monday gardening sessions allow anyone to help the librarians plant, harvest and hand out the herbs they grow.

According to Appleman, groups of middle school students come to the library every day after school to play on the computers. Patrons of all ages use the library simultaneously, Appleman said.

“It can be really comical, the mix of the teens, tweens, the babies, and the inquisitive three-year-olds,” Appleman said.

Longtime library patron Mike Tarr brings his sons to the library once a week. Ten-year-old Ben and six-year-old Sam order books through the library’s website and pick them up in Squirrel Hill.

Ben said the library has more books than he and his brother can read.

“That would take a really long time,” Ben said, looking up from his Garfield comic book. “You might be able to if you were a really fast reader and read 24/7, but I don’t think I could.”

The brothers discovered some of their favorite titles at the library, including Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, several of which they download to the family Kindle. This convenience is what Tarr likes most about the library.

“You can try things out and discover new books you wouldn’t have normally,” Tarr said.

For Ben and Sam, the library means 10-20 books a week and a well-used Kindle. For the Lauwers family, however, the library is all about story time.

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Evan Herman, 13, and his mother Maren Herman read perched upon window seats.
Photo by Mike Lynch

Cross-legged on the Carnegie Library’s carpeted floor, Tom Lauwers watched his children, two-year-old Adrian and four-year-old Lena, rummage through a bin of soft puppets.

“They ask to come to the library and they specifically want to go to story time,” Lauwers said. “You say ‘story time’ and they’ll get to the car really quickly.”

Lauwers says the library offers more to his family than just books. The programs – especially story time – are a great way for his children to socialize.

“You always end up reading a few books so it supports the library’s mission, if that’s what you think a library’s mission is,” Lauwers said. “I think these libraries are much more than places to just get books.”

He gestured to the other side of the library where a yoga class was meeting behind a set of glass doors, mats lined in perfect, colorful rows.

“You can see people doing yoga, they have classes for skills: accounting, finances. It’s not like people are just here to check out books,” Lauwers said.

In addition to children’s programming, the library also offers events for adults. Adult librarian Alicia Hillman increased programming this year to include monthly book clubs, gardening classes, lectures on finances and accounting, language classes and yoga.



The library’s most popular program for adults is Meet the Artist. Local artists display their work in the library and host meet-and-greet events once a month. The events attract around 50 people.

Fiction and genre book clubs have a core attendance of 6-7 people. Larger events such as last month’s presentation by Carnegie Mellon creative writing professor Jane McCaffery attract larger crowds

Despite their attendance, adult programs are not as popular as children’s events. Hillman attributes this to the newness of the programs.

“We’re slowly trying to build an audience,” Hillman said. “People are still getting used to the idea that we have programs for adults.”

Appleman says that the library is the ideal place for people to meet in Squirrel Hill. Located in the center of the neighborhood, the branch is one of the busiest in the Carnegie system in both circulation and attendance.

The walkable neighborhood and nearby schools help the library attract a variety of regular patrons. Because of this, Appleman is able to watch many of the library’s frequent visitors grow up.

“It’s a lot of the same families, so you’ll see the same kids go from baby lap sit to toddlers to pre-k,” Appleman said. “You get to watch the kids grow up.”

Working with adults allows Hillman to help people through difficult times in their lives.

She described one patron whose mother’s vision was failing. Hillman showed her the options the library had to help, including large print books and books on CD.

“You get people in a different time of life,” Hillman said. “You don’t get to watch [kids] grow up, but you get to watch [adults] figure out everything that the library has to offer.”

Appleman says the library helps foster a sense of community both among the patrons and in Squirrel Hill.

“Squirrel Hill has a strong sense of community,” Appleman said, “and the library is central to that.”