History of the PTLL
The Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library opened on November 6, 1974 and has been operating ever since.
We are proud to be one of the oldest continuously operating toy libraries in the United States.
A group of parents founded the PTLL because they recognized the need for an organization that could lend out toys; educate caregivers and the community about the importance of play in early childhood; and provide a physical space for children to play and families to connect with each other. The most instrumental of these founders were Elizabeth Odoroff and Bruce Goldstein, but they had help from many others -- especially co-founders Ruth Grant, the PTLL's first treasurer, and Stanley Perelman, our first secretary.
"Toys are a colorful, attractive medium through which parents can reach out and interact with children," wrote the PTLL's founders.
The PTLL was initially located in the Shadyside Information Center, at 5744 Ellsworth Avenue. This space was provided by the Community Mental Health Program of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (now UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital). Most of the PTLL's first toys were donated by the Washington, D.C., Toy Lending Library. Members of the original governing board and many others contributed cash, materials, and labor. These generous donations allowed the PTLL to open and begin serving families in the Pittsburgh area. In its early years, the PTLL also received grants from the McFeely-Rogers Foundation, the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, and the Pittsburgh Foundation.
In 1975, the Shadyside Information Center closed due to Community Mental Heath funds being cut. As a result, the PTLL was forced to close on June 25, 1975 -- but prior to closing, the toy library was able to secure a new space.
The new space was over four times larger than the PTLL's original space, and the toy library remained in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood. Our new home was in the basement of the First United Methodist Church, between Centre Avenue and Baum Boulevard. The PTLL reopened in October of 1975.
Since its inception, the toy library has operated as a nonprofit organization on an all-volunteer basis with no paid staff. By 1977, the PTLL had over 400 member families. To meet the ever-increasing workload created by this growing membership, the toy library instituted a "Parent Helper" system that asked each family to contribute at least four volunteer hours per year. Most families were happy to contribute, and many gave far more than just four hours. This system also resulted in members who were more connected to the PTLL. The "Parent Helper" system has evolved through the years.
Today, the PTLL continues to rely on volunteer power to run the organization. Parents, guardians, grandparents, and other caregivers lend a hand to keep us going. Our volunteers generously contribute their time, energy, and talents to ensuring that the toy library can serve families throughout the Pittsburgh region.
Fred Rogers visited us for a 1986 episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood about "Playthings." In the episode, Mister Rogers met Barbara Liftman and learned all about the toy library and how toy borrowing worked. As Mister Rogers reminded us,
"One of the most important things about being a child is you can take time to learn to play well."
Our play space increased in size again in 1999, when we moved from the church's basement to a space on its ground floor, where we remain to this day. We gained a kitchen, shared use of the adjacent parking lot, and best of all -- natural lighting! We deeply value the relationship that we have built with First United Methodist Church over these many years. We are not affiliated with the church and the PTLL is not a religious organization in any way, but the church has been extremely supportive of our mission.
In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the toy library to close. In June, we were able to begin offering lending-only hours to allow members to continue borrowing toys. These hours have been staffed primarily by our dedicated board members, as well as a few amazing volunteer-members.
As of March 2021, our play space remains closed, but we continue to offer no-contact toy lending every week, and we strive to be an ongoing resource for Pittsburgh-area families. We are paying close attention to public health recommendations and discussing how and when we might safely reopen for play. The situation continues to evolve, but we hope to open our play space again soon.
Throughout the decades of our existence, the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library has changed in many ways -- but our core philosophy in 2021 remains much the same as it was in 1974. We continue to recognize that play is how children learn; that loving caregiver-child relationships are essential to children's development; that parenting is a learned skill; and that fostering connection and community benefits everyone.