If Denise Graham, branch manager of the Carnegie Library in Homewood, were to design a curriculum for a master’s degree in library science, it would look a little different than what she learned.
“In library school they teach you ‘we are the last bastion of democracy,’ and ‘people come to us for information to change or save their lives.’ And that’s true, it really is,” she says.
But when she talks to graduating librarians, she shares a different set of lessons.
“I told them about the time I had to clean up beer after the drunk came into the library and dropped his two-liter bottle of beer. And that the easiest way to get the copy machine to work was to kick it.”
On Friday, Sept. 2, Graham is retiring and getting out of the copier kicking business. Just two months short of 46 years working for the library and 18 years as Homewood’s head librarian, Graham will be checking out books to read in her own backyard, preferably, she says, with an adult beverage.
It hasn’t all been crazy.
“There is so much joy,” she says.
There have been moments that have melted her heart, like when a mom helped her preschooler obtain a library card, then presented him with a wallet in which to carry it. And when the young man who had struggled at home but found a safe place at the Homewood library invited her to be his guest at his Westinghouse High School graduation.
During the Covid shutdown, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh distributed books by having people order them, and pick them up from an outdoor table. But Graham was also one of the librarians who staffed the reference chats. She was supposed to do an hour at a time, but stayed online for two or three hours because it was so much fun helping people.
She has met and gotten to know authors who grew up here and went on to literary success such as the late Point Breeze native David McCullough, who won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award twice, and John Edgar Wideman, who grew up in Shadyside and won two PEN/Faulkner Awards.
One of the best programs ever at the library, Graham says, was a talk by Homewood authors Albert French and John Brewer Jr. The pair riffed on each other, leaving the audience in stitches.
Graham started her library career as a part-time clerk, working on Saturdays while a student at then-Chatham College. She worked for Marjorie Franklin, who was Homewood’s head librarian. Graham wanted to go on to law school, but Franklin pressed an application for the University of Pittsburgh’s Master of Library Science program into Graham’s hand.
When Graham graduated from Pitt, she was assigned to the Book Mobile. Before long, she transferred to the Squirrel Hill branch for six months before moving over to East Liberty for 17 years, the last 12 as the manager.
In 2004, she returned to the renovated Homewood branch, which has remained a sea of calm in the neighborhood.
“Some of my colleagues have had really really bad experiences,” she says, “but we’ve been very fortunate in Homewood.”
After she leaves the building as a librarian, she plans to return to volunteer as a literacy coach.