Alison Altemus has come to know Millvale very well since she joined its library board in 2017. She has witnessed the borough residents’ commitment to their community, and it pleases her and the other board members to support them in deeply personal ways.

So the $227,320 grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District for the expansion of its Tool Lending Library, including support staff and building design, announced last month is just thrilling to her and her fellow board members. “This is the biggest deal that we have had beyond opening the library almost 11 years ago at this point,” she said. “This is the biggest change and most significant change that we have had.”

Millvale Community Library opened in 2013, and the Tool Lending Library started in 2018. What began with about 350 tools now has reached more than 1,000, serving 600 patron members from more than 40 regional ZIP codes, according to a news release announcing the grant. 

The Tool Lending Library is housed in the library’s basement, preventing patrons from browsing what is available and jeopardizing the tool collection because of the significant risk of flood damage from Girty’s Run Creek behind it. The last flood from the creek struck the borough in 2019. The funding from Allegheny Regional Asset District allows for a 12-by-40-foot separate structure, which will include electricity and heating, to be built in MCL’s backyard to house the collection and make it safer and more accessible. Construction will start at the beginning of summer.

The Millvale Community Library was the first public library in the borough and existed independently until becoming part of the Allegheny County Library Association in July 2016, the news release stated. The library is as much a community center as it is a library, with a strong focus on youth programming, sustainability and mutual aid.

Tagged tools and equipment line shelves in the Millvale Community Library basement. A grant will allow the library to build a separate structure for its tool-lending library. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“This grant will make a world of difference. Hundreds of renters, homeowners, hobbyists and tradespeople have already borrowed tools, and yet the tool library still has so much unlocked potential,” Dan Malakoff, one of the head volunteers at the Tool Lending Library, said in the news release.

“Folks who don’t know what tools they need, or who have limited mobility, will be able to browse in the new building. A coordinator will professionalize the program, plus lead workshops and get the word out that we’re here. It’s just so exciting,” Malakoff said.

Those who have utilized the Tool Lending Library, a low- to no-cost resource available to anyone over 18, have saved an estimated $112,500 annually by borrowing tools rather than buying or renting, according to the news release. “The library represents a circular economy and creates more wealth and opportunity for all of us,” said Brian Wolovich, board president of Millvale Community Development Corp. “This funding allows us to continue growing this invaluable resource and make it physically accessible for people of all abilities.”

The library’s website explains how it works in detail. Residents and others need to present a library card or photo ID and complete a member application. It is free; adult residents of other communities can make a $30 annual contribution to maintain the tool collection.

People can search for hand and power tools for building, woodworking, home maintenance, gardening, plumbing, cars, bikes and more by name using the photo binders at the library’s front desk or the online catalog. The one thing they cannot do is browse through the collection itself, arranged neatly underneath a low-hanging ceiling. The volunteers need to don hard hats to fetch requested tools, taking care not to hit low-hanging pipes or slipping on uneven ground.

Borrowers can check out up to five tools for one week at a time for free. Tools must be returned to the circulation desk during normal hours, according to the library’s website.

Melissa Mason, who started in May 2023 as the library’s executive director, said this is the only large tool-lending library program in the area right now. As more and more libraries adopt the Library of Things concept — offering much more than lending books and assisting in research — she foresees others considering adding one to serve patrons and fulfilling a huge need.

Malakoff, who lived in the borough before moving to Bloomfield, has been part of the effort since the beginning. He worked beside AmeriCorps volunteer Maria Mongelluzzo to get the Tool Lending Library started. Altemus also recognized her contributions, especially leading fundraising efforts to collect the needed tools from community members and more. 

He had come upon a tool-lending program in Philadelphia years back when he traveled there to help a friend install floors in a house he had purchased. Malakoff heard about the Millvale effort and offered to help in 2017. The finish carpenter, who has worked on historical renovation work in Washington, D.C., and Florida previously, said it took about a year and a half to gather enough tools to start. Malakoff and others would go to estate sales and ask for any tools not sold, and when his contractor uncle retired, he donated many of his. A Pittsburgh Foundation grant in 2018 helped the library buy some new tools and provided the funds to promote the initiative and hold workshops for residents.

Those workshops included cutting and polishing marble and creating cutting boards. Malakoff said they also built cold frames for the Millvale Community Gardens, some bird and bat boxes and little free pantries that they distributed to neighborhood community organizations.

Mason said the workshops had to stop during the pandemic, but when the new staff member comes on board, who will also coordinate non-literacy-based programming and recruit and train volunteers in addition to overseeing the Tool Lending Library, they have the potential to start again. The library has hired the employee, who will start in mid-April, and the grant will cover the position’s salary and benefits for two years.

Shovels and other tools line the basement of the Millvale Community Library. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Currently the library has about 12 active volunteers and four to five others who work on food insecurity — the library has a refrigerator on the side of its deck and a dry pantry inside — and Mason expects that number to double once the new employee joins its current two full-time and three part-time staff.

Malakoff said the most popular tools people request are power-washing equipment and miter saws. The Tool Lending Library also has equipment not available through rentals, such as tile-cutting saws, tile spacers, knee pads and other equipment for projects. “We have all you would need to get a tile project done,” he said. He noted that the $30 suggested donation is way lower than all those tools and accessories would cost.

People who borrow the library’s tools run the gamut, Malakoff said, from renters to homeowners to small contractors and skilled workers who take on small jobs on their off days and hours. “We enable it,” he said, and it helps those who “don’t have too much money.”

Plus, it’s often hard to find contractors and skilled workers for small jobs. The added benefit: “If you can do it yourself, it’s empowering,” he said.

Mason, who just bought a house in Millvale after years of renting, understands. She also noted that in the library she often hears people requesting tools discussing which ones to use and how for a project with the volunteers. “They will talk it through,” Mason said. “It’s just invaluable to have someone to bounce your ideas and plans off.”

The most popular items need to be returned on time, but other borrowing periods can be extended for other tools, Malakoff said.

Altemus said the Tool Lending Library has exceeded the board’s expectations and sometimes its ability to keep up with it. “It’s obviously our most successful and busiest program since it started,” she said.

“Millvale has a very DIY culture. If they decide to build it, they want to do it themselves. There is so much that can be done in the community by working together and community support. The tool-lending library is there for what the community wants to do — build and do it practically.”

Practical also describes the library since its conception. It is housed in a former electronics building on Grant Street, and Mason said the board is closing in on paying off its mortgage. That has come about in part because it owns the connecting building next to it, which houses Danielle Spinola’s Abeille Voyante Tea Co. She often plans activities with the library. The library collects revenue from three apartments, two on top of the one-floor library and another atop the tea shop, too.

In keeping with its community commitment, Mason said the rent is affordable and originally housed immigrants who came to the community. This complements the library’s involvement and support of the Tri Borough Ecodistrict, which promotes coordinated sustainable community development throughout Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg and is a fiscally sponsored project of  New Sun Rising, a nonprofit organization with an office in Millvale.

“This project fits with all of this,” she said. “Right now people can’t find affordable housing. We’re making it accessible for everybody and preserving affordable spaces.” And the access to Pittsburgh is key.  “We’re close to the city but not in it,” Mason added.

Pages greets patrons at the entrance to the Millvale Community Library. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Community Library)

The library’s commitment to the community was evident when Pages, a dog balancing books on its head sculpture created by James Simon that greets library visitors, was vandalized. Altemus said the head was taken off. Churches, residents and children in the Shaler School District raised $2,000 for the repairs, which Simon completed.

“We all did a close inspection of him once the repairs were done,” Altemus said. “James did a fabulous job.

“We are really lucky in the community. Sometimes things happen. The community rallied around the library and Pages the dog so quickly [that] in the end it was really heartening to see the reactions from everyone in so many ways.”

Part of the RAD grant is earmarked “to begin the design process for the future expansion of the library’s footprint and engage with staff, volunteers, director and the public to ensure that the transformation of the physical library provides opportunity and joy to the community,” according to the news release. One thing Mason would like to add is another private space for patrons; it currently has only one.

The cozy library festooned with artwork created by countless volunteers and staff, Altemus said, will greatly benefit from the new structure in its backyard, which already includes raised gardening beds and a play space children flock to after school. It will abut and connect to a new deck with an accessible entrance, enabling those with mobility issues to browse and access needed tools. Once that is complete, the board vice president said the library will hold a big celebration and a grand reopening party.

“We are so grateful to RAD for this opportunity,” she said.

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at