Monday, July 22, 2013

Laughlin Memorial Library

Laughlin Memorial Library

Although I could say my schools and church were the institutions outside of my family that most influenced me growing up in Ambridge, in all honesty, I'd have to say that my biggest influences probably were the library and the swimming pool.

I was a voracious reader. Every other Saturday during grade school—and sometimes more frequently than that—my friend Susan Hrusko (who still lived in Ambridge until she died in June, 2013) and I would walk to the library from our homes on Beaver Road. I'd borrow three books, the lending limit at the time, then walk home. Two weeks later when the books were due, we'd do it all again.

I always thought the interior vaguely smelled of furniture polish, perhaps explained by all the wood: the large four-sided circulation desk, shelves, tables, and chairs. And the card catalog cabinets. In those pre-computer days, the cards in the wooden cabinets' many intriguing small drawers would help me find books by title, author, or subject.

I'd leave the three books I was returning at the front of the circulation desk in the center of the library, then make a right to the children's section, which then took up about two-thirds of the front right side of the floor. There I'd check out the books displayed on tables with angled tops and benches to sit on, or the books on the tops of the low free-standing shelves. Then I'd peruse the books on the shelves on the walls, pulling out books that looked interesting, until I found my three selections to take home that week.

In nonfiction, I liked books about geography and history. In fiction, my taste ran the gamut from Louisa May Alcott to series books about girls or young women having adventures: teen detectives Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden; Cherry Ames, the mystery solving nurse; and Vicki Barr, the mystery solving airline "stewardess." You might notice a pattern there.

In the '50s and '60s, children under a certain age (12? 13?) were only allowed in the children's section of the library, which I seem to recall was set off from the rest of the right side by a low bookshelf. It was an exciting day when I was finally old enough to be able to see what was on the shelves in the rest of the library. The first book I remember reading from the adult fiction shelves was Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Another book about a young woman, but with a story much sadder and shocking to me than the girl detective heroines'.

There was a glass fronted set of shelves in the "grown-up" part of the library that, rumor had it, held "sex books." Oddly, I don't remember ever checking the titles on the books behind those doors. Probably afraid someone would see me. That would have been so embarrassing.

When I was ready to check out, I'd take my selections to the circulation desk and the librarian, usually Mrs. Grubbs, would complete the checkout process. (I only vaguely remember the checkout procedure, so if someone remembers the details more clearly than I do, I'd appreciate your providing a more accurate description in the comments).

I believe the librarian would take a card with the name of the book and its call number out of the paper pocket pasted in the back of each book, ink a date stamp, then stamp the books' cards with the due date and note on them that I was borrowing them (by my library card number?). She'd keep and file those cards. She would then find a smiliar card that had my name typed on it, stamp it with the due date of the books (and the books' call numbers?) and put that card in the back pocket of one of the books. I always loved watching the librarian stamp the dates and hearing the soft stamping noise.

On our way home with our books, Susan and I would sometimes stop at the religious supplies store on Merchant Street to buy "holy cards" or at the Rexall drug store at the corner of Merchant and 14th Street (now part of the Elderberry Court elder care home) and have a Reymer's Lemon Blennd at the soda fountain.

On my June, 2013 visit to the library, given all the changes in the rest of Ambridge, I was pleased to find both the exterior and interior mostly unchanged. Sadly, the exterior is now missing the two tall ornate lamps topped with glass globes that once stood at the base of the steps. They were stolen several years ago. Inside, the children's books are now shelved in the basement, and the card cabinets, of course, are long gone, but the all the marble and wood—still there. That made me happy. I didn't notice any furniture polish smell though.

A history and description of the Laughlin Memorial Library can be found in A History of Beaver County's Libraries by Christy L Blackburn on the website Beaver County History Online.

I had always assumed that just as the B. F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa was built with money from the Jones family who owned Jones and Laughlin Steel (J&L), the Laughlin Memorial Library was built by J&L's Laughlin family. But according to the information on the site, I was wrong. It was built by the Laughlin family who once owned Central Tube Company in Ambridge as a memorial to their son, Alexander, Jr., who died at age 37.

The story behind the library's marble columns is impressive:
These columns are rare and majestic due to their source. The blocks from which these columns were carved were quarried from the top of a mountain on the Island of Palmerio, off the coast of Italy in the Bay of Spica. The quarry is located 600 feet above sea level. After being quarried, the giant monoliths were slid down from the top of the mountain to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There they were loaded on small boats and transported to the port of Leghorn, where they were transshipped by ocean steamers to the Hilgartner Marble Company in Baltimore. Here, the blocks were converted into highly polished columns. Black and gold marble is found only around the Bay of Spica. According to quarry authorities, "the columns of the library are the largest monolithic columns of this type in the world."


  1. Nancy: This is a wonderful post! Your descriptions of the sights and smells made me feel like I was there again in my youth (1960's).

    I, too, have fond memories of going to the Library on Saturday mornings. My girlfriend and I lived on the 600 block of Beaver Road, and we took a slightly different route to & from the library. Always passing through "the park" (which, in those days, had very puny trees, hardly any shade). We'd stop at United Dairy on 9th & Melrose for a cone, milkshake or other treat.

    Wonderful memories; great blog. I'm glad you started it.

    1. jd aka john domansky

      the ambridge library was awe inspiring, start with the floors, most beautiful, the columns same thing, as was everything else in there, i NEVER noticed a smell or scent of any kind. today a place like that would cost 20 million to build with the land & all. to talk was not allowed, to whisper got you a look, you did it 2 x & you were asked to leave, times have changed, not for the better tho. we, (not me tho) have become device zombies. cell phones are banes on the highway & streets. enuff said, i tell people about that library & they look & shake their heads & say suure!!! a jewel in any town any where is a library like that one.

    2. jd of above, years were from 1940 to 1950s inside

  2. What a wonderful post. I have very special memories from the library when I was in high school and during my first year of college. It is such an amazing library full of wonderful history. The stack room was so impressive. I was in awe of the bound newspapers dating back to the 20s.
    Laura Wagner Jordan
    TIPS: Teach, Inspire, and Prepare Students

  3. Nancy,
    this was a most enjoyable post. The Laughlin Library was such a welcoming, yet mysterious, place when I was young. I set aside one year to read everything in the Jr. science section and then some. I loved the musty-dusty smell, dim lighting,and eerie silence of the place. It was quietly powerful and always compelling every time I pulled open that heavy door and entered what I reembered was a cavernous space with the librarian station a guardpost to knowledge and adventures of the mind. It was a safe place, and it was a really great place on cold or rainy days during summer vacation. Like you, I came back to look at it many years later, and it seemed so much smaller and less magical and mysterious. And I realized, it hadn't changed at was me.

  4. You took me right back to that children's section with that post! I loved being inside that library too. I have vivid memories of getting my first library card, and checking out my very first book there, called "Upside Down Town". Living in Harmony Twp. I did not get there as often as I wanted, but it is a happy memory of growing up in Ambridge.

  5. Nancy,

    What a great way to start your blog - with the library.

    I had no idea the library was funded by a different family of Laughlins. When I erect my memorial, I will be sure to include a prominent plaque, so that the yokels get it right.

    I didn't go there often. It wasn't within walking distance (you were lucky).

    I did go a few times to find books I needed for reports. I borrowed "The History of Tom Jones" for senior English.

    I remember that the librarian seemed hesitant to give me the books (2 or 3 volumes!). Perhaps I looked too innocent. This was about the time the movie came out.

    I never felt too comfortable in the Ambridge Library. I remember the heavy door. It always seemed empty inside.

    I know this is completely contrary to your experience. If I had started going there early and often, I would no doubt feel the same as you.

    It certainly is the most beautiful building in Ambridge if not Western PA.

    I went to the Baden Library (when it was a second-floor walk-up, not in its present location at Memorial Park). Once you ascended the stairs, you made a right turn through a wooden door. It smelled like books.

    The small space was crammed to the ceiling. It was hard to move without knocking something over.

    It was only open one or two evenings a week. Mrs. Russell presided.

    I wonder if the Laughlin Library of today has rows and rows of computers for public use, as the Baltimore County libraries do. Somehow I don't think so.

    Anyway, there is something crazy about visiting the library to use a computer.

    I'm looking forward to your post on the Boro Park pool.

  6. Bob, I didn't see rows of computers when I was there, but I wasn't focused on that. I asked my mom, but she doesn't really use computers so wasn't sure. Maybe 3 or 4 she said.

    And as far as I know, the Ambridge library doesn't have wifi either.

    So very different from all the technology in the Baltimore and Howard County libraries. But our libraries aren't as beautiful.

  7. Ambridge Library does have computers, and wifi. They also have a lot of programs for kids and for adults, as does the Baden Library. Times are changing, and the libraries are changing with them, and working to become community centers, and information centers. Like your libraries on facebook and check them our at you might be surprised. The library in Beaver Falls is a refuge for some f the low income and homeless in the area. It is old, and crumbling, but beautiful in its own way. Instead of just remembering libraries... go back! You might be surprised.

    1. During my November 2013 visit to the Ambridge library, I spent quite a number of hours there doing research, and I did see the library's 10 computers which were frequently all in use.

      There is wifi, although I never could get connected with my own equipment.

      I think the library has been evolving into a community center since it was young. In doing research about Ambridge history, I've come across a number of mentions of organizations meeting there. People told me they took piano lessons there. And my mother once taught craft classes there.

      I've "liked" the Laughlin Memorial Library's Facebook page for quite a while. Because I really do!

  8. The number the librarian wrote on your book card was the book's accession number, the number assigned to each book when it was processed. Unlike a call number which tells you where a book is located, the accession number allowed the librarian to check in her accession book to find out when and where that particular copy was purchased and what the price was.
    I loved how quiet the library and the chimes of the tall clock by the entrance, however, I have to admit I liked a little noise in my elementary library when I became a librarian.