Library opening a first in Millvale's 145-year-old history

After six years of volunteer efforts, The Millvale Community Library opens with a daylong celebration.

by Aaron Jentzen

A Chinese lion dance, performed on the threshold, promises good fortune. Local religious leaders have given blessings. It’s finally time to cut the red ribbon — and the cake.

Raising one arm high, Brian Wolovich leads the crowd in a countdown: “Three, two, one — the library’s open!”

Children and adults make their way into the new Millvale Community Library, a brightly painted storefront on the borough’s main street. After six years of volunteer efforts, this Western Pennsylvania town has its first public library in 145 years.

Inside, volunteers serve cake, and the stacks buzz with conversation. In the children’s section, Lisa Seel chats with local kids. As vice president of the library’s board, she has a hand in everything from grant writing to children’s programs, including reading clubs and art classes.

Clutching a brand-new library card, a young girl runs up to Heather Antill. The local resident brought in her niece and nephew to get their library cards, even though the checkout desk won’t be ready to loan books for a couple more days.

Outside on Grant Street, R&B band The Smokin’ Section takes the stage, the first of several musical acts performing at the daylong celebration.

Like most libraries, the Millvale Community Library (MCL) loans out books and other materials, provides computer access for residents and hosts programs for children and teens. Few libraries, however, are using their basements to launch a tool-lending program. The MCL’s funky, patchwork vibe reflects its grassroots origins and holistic mission.

Cutting the ribbon at the Millvale Community Library opening.After the grand opening, Brian Wolovich says he felt “an amazing feeling of relief.” The library’s board president and initial visionary, Wolovich lives in Millvale and teaches 6th grade at Quaker Valley Middle School. He describes the MCL as a “triple-bottom-line” project, designed to impact the area’s ecology, economy and social equity — “the three ‘e’s of sustainability.”

And those three things aren’t taken for granted in Millvale. The small Western Pennsylvania borough of 3,700 has borne more than its share of economic and environmental hardship.

“Like many small lower-income communities, Millvale doesn’t have a large tax base,” says Wolovich. In such circumstances, libraries need to somehow pay their own way. The MCL plans to generate much of its income from the building’s four additional rental units — three apartments and an office space.

“From the get-go, there were three aspects that we needed,” says Wolovich: a building large enough to serve as a community space, with income-generating potential and a garden — “or something we could turn into a garden space.”

The back door opens onto a wooden deck and large green space. Once a gravel parking lot, the lawn is now dotted with sculptures and seating, alongside plots tended by the Millvale Junior Gardeners club.

The lawn slopes gently down toward Girty’s Run, a natural feature that has played a significant role in Millvale’s history. The creek has flooded the town several times, notably in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan swept across Western Pennsylvania.

It’s a wonder Girty’s Run didn’t wash away the MCL while it was only an idea.

Wolovich started kicking around ideas for a Millvale library in April of 2007. With Hurricane Ivan in the past and a revitalized Lawrenceville just across the 40th Street Bridge, Millvale seemed ready to bloom. Then, in August, two floods in two days destroyed many homes and businesses, choking the streets with debris and boot-sucking mud.

While demoralizing, a natural disaster can also galvanize a community. Once the emergency vehicles, politicians and TV cameras leave, says Wolovich, “neighbors and families come together.” The experience left him wondering, “If so many people can come together to react to disaster, why can’t we come together to do something proactive?” he says.

The MCL launched in 2008, initially housed in the Millvale Community Center. As a teacher, focusing on youth was natural for Wolovich. “Frankly, I see children as the most vulnerable members of our society,” he says, “and that’s where I’m going to put my efforts.”

The stacks at the Millvale Community Library.The MCL gradually built connections with area families and young people, says Wolovich, as well as youth-serving agencies in Western Pennsylvania. It also began providing services for Millvale’s adults, including a long-running GED preparation class. Early financial support included a Sprout Fund Community Connections grant, for the creation of a community green space near the MCL.

To fulfill its broader mission of sustainability, the MCL needed a permanent location. In 2010, it purchased two abandoned buildings at 213 Grant Ave., and volunteers began renovating the property. Three years later, on August 18, 2013, the library was finally ready for its grand opening.

In the Millvale Junior Gardeners plots, parsley and squash grow alongside peppers, tomatillos and strawberries. Near Girty’s Run, cattails and black-eyed susans grow in a rain garden — a miniature wetland designed to retain rainwater and prevent flooding.

To Wolovich, the garden is “a metaphor for what’s happening in Millvale now”: The former parking lot now grows food and flowers, captures runoff and serves as a meeting place. While he sees the library as “a showpiece” for Millvale, the goal isn’t necessarily to bring in newcomers, but to serve the existing community.

At the far end of the garden, a rebuilt footbridge crosses Girty’s Run. Standing on the new planking, Jim Machajewski shares a laugh with friends. While he was born and raised in Millvale, he says the town is truly different today: For the first time in its 145-year history, it has a public library.

As borough council president, Machajewski had presided at the ribbon cutting, where he emphasized the ways libraries benefit children in Western Pennsylvania communities like Millvale. “Dreams and ideas are born here,” he’d said.

From one perspective, the MCL has been a long time coming. But it’s also just beginning: On a Tuesday, two days after the celebration, the library opened for business. “I was possibly more nervous about Tuesday than about Sunday,” says Wolovich. And with good reason: The crush of patrons put the library’s new processes, logistics and volunteer staff to the test.

When they opened, Wolovich says, “10 kids were already waiting to get in.” Here’s to sustainable libraries — and to beginnings.

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Published September 26, 2013