Northland Public Library Thrives Amid Pandemic
Despite the challenges of a pandemic — or perhaps because of them — the Northland Public Library was one of the busiest libraries in Allegheny County last year.
The library, located on Cumberland Road in McCandless, serves Bradford Woods, Franklin Park, Marshall, McCandless and Ross and is one of 46 independent public libraries in the Allegheny County Library System.
Northland recorded the highest circulation of mined and renewed physical items for 2021 at 945,082, said Amy Steele, Northland’s executive director. That’s almost twice as many as the library that came second in that category: the Carnegie Library Main Branch of Pittsburgh in Oakland at 504,650.
For Steele, that says a lot about the Northland library.
“It certainly shows that it matters to the community. Residents of this neighborhood depend on the library for their needs, recreation and education,” said Steele, who has been there since 2013.
Northland is the second-largest library in Allegheny County by geographic area served, service area population, collection, and circulation. The largest is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system, which includes all of its branches, said Nicholas Yon, director of communications for Northland.
Whether used for early literacy skills, education, special interests or even socializing, the library has remained busy.
“It shows the impact the library has on our daily lives,” Yon said.
Steele said the number of people coming through its doors in 2021 was 155,000, and that was with covid-related closures. Before the 2019 pandemic, the library had more than 300,000 people.
When Northland had to close during the state’s emergency order last March, it gave staff an opportunity to think outside the box.
“I can’t say enough about what the staff did. They reinvented everything they needed,” Steele said.
Several new service options have become popular, including virtual programming and contactless services, such as book bundles. Steele said a lot of customers like to browse, but when they couldn’t get into the library, they could request a “bundle of books” on an interest or topic to pick up.
Virtual programming, including preschool story time, was scheduled almost immediately for each day of the week.
And during the pandemic, staff were preparing and hanging individually wrapped arts and crafts kits outside the library for kids to take home. Always a popular feature, Steele said, the library distributes about 400 craft kits a month in its children’s and teen departments on the first floor, with activities tailored by age group, from toddlers to teens.
Susan Claus, manager of children and teen services, described this department as “the treasure of Aladdin”, thanks to the abundance of educational and recreational resources, virtual programs for children, special interest programs for teenagers, movies, music, games and more. And the library is adding a Family Book and Movie Club, with popcorn to go, starting in February.
The library has also expanded its collection of world languages in the area of children and adolescents as well as adult services, Yon said.
Franklin Park’s Lauren Terza recently visited the library with her daughter, Juliana, 3, browsing through books at one of the child-friendly tables and reading areas.
“We come a lot to read the books. And there are big spaces that you can walk around in,” she said.
In addition to a well-used computer area on the second floor where adult services are located, computers are also located in the children’s and teens’ area. Yon noted that one of the busiest times in the library is after school on weekdays, when students come to work on projects, do homework, play games or socialize.
Millennials seem to have their niche, Yon said, particularly enjoying the bundled collection of materials related to their specific interests.
“They crave a curated experience,” he said.
Binge Boxes are a new item that showcases a collection of movies, based on themes, genres, directors, actors, time periods, special interests, or whatever else can be asked for, Yon said.
A wide variety of adult programs are offered in person or virtually: computer classes, book discussion groups, special interest activities and soon in-person movie matinees. For a complete list and registration, visit the library’s website, www.northlandlibrary.org.
Steele found printers to be particularly popular during the pandemic. The same goes for hotspots, which provide remote Internet access via a portable device. This was especially important during the shutdown when parents and children were all online with remote work and school, Steele said.
“We always say we serve everyone from the cradle to the grave,” Steele said.
Steele said some non-traditional items that can be borrowed include radon detectors, yoga mats and exercises for kids; virtual reality headsets, ukuleles and more. DVDs, CDs and board games can be borrowed and used at the site, Steele said.
The library has also partnered with North Park staff to provide hiking backpacks, along with binoculars, hiking and park guides, and park maps.
McCandless’ Pat Mihlfried visits the library to leaf through the volumes of documents, newspapers, magazines and books.
“It’s really nice to meet people,” including the staff, Mihlfried said. “They are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.”
Northland is part of the Allegheny County Public Library System. A database serves all the public libraries in the system. So a Northland cardholder can access resources across the county and state, Steele said.
When an item borrowed from other places needs to be returned, Northland will ensure it is returned correctly, she said.
The library uses interlibrary loan to obtain an item from anywhere in the country or the world. She said she recently got a card for someone from Australia.
“There’s not much we can’t achieve,” she said.
Sixty percent of the library’s revenue comes from local municipalities, with the remainder coming from the Allegheny County Assets Regional District, the state, the North Public Library Foundation, and other sources.
Yon said the library was recently recertified as a PA Forward Gold Star Library, an honor held since 2018, signifying its commitment to providing quality programming. The library is governed by a board of directors appointed by the five municipalities it serves.
Winter hours are Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Sundays during the summer.
Natalie Beneviat is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.