Paul M. Rooney, who oversaw the merger of three collections into what became the vast Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, as well as the construction of the 400,000-square-foot Central Library downtown, died Thursday in ElderWood Health Care at Oakwood, Amherst. He was 89.
Mr. Rooney was director of the unified system for eight years before he retired in 1983, ending a 48-year library career.
"He was a gentle and thoughtful man and, without qualification, the system's premier librarian," said Michael C. Mahaney, the current director.
Born in Buffalo, Mr. Rooney started as a page at the Buffalo Public Library in 1935, while a student at Buffalo State Teachers College. After receiving his library science degree from the University of Buffalo in 1940, he rose rapidly through the city system.
He was active in a reconfiguration of library services that began in 1947 with the establishment of the Erie County Public Library and the initiation of county funding for community libraries that had been poorly financed.
Marty Lewin, a retired assistant deputy director who met Mr. Rooney in 1951, when he went to work for him at the Grosvenor Library, recalled how Joseph B. Rounds, then director of the Erie County Public Library, asked Mr. Rooney to plan the consolidation of the county, city and Grosvenor collections, which together held more than 1 million books, and to lead construction of the Central Library on Lafayette Square.
"Figuring out how to fit everything into the new building was really quite a job," Lewin said. Mr. Rooney was tasked not only with deciding where to put various groupings of books, but calculating each collection's future space needs based on growth patterns. "He was able to estimate all of that," Lewin said.
The Herculean transfer of library equipment and books from the Grosvenor and Buffalo libraries to the new building's east wing was completed in 1963.
Mr. Rooney was deputy director of the merged system from 1965 until he succeeded Rounds as director a decade later.
A voracious reader and accomplished artist whose woodblock prints usually depicted birds and other wildlife, he played recorder, baked bread and enjoyed working crossword puzzles.
"He was a Renaissance man in many ways," Lewin said.
Mr. Rooney, who lived his entire life in the city before moving to the Amherst health care facility, was a lector at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. He was a past trustee of the Western New York Library Resources Council, a member of the New York State Public Librarians Certification Committee, vice chairman of the Commissioners Committee on Statewide Library Development and a member of the library Executive Board.
Surviving are his wife, the former Elizabeth Dorsey; a son, James; and two sisters, Rita Sudd and Maura Hartman.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Blessed Sacrament Church, 1029 Delaware Ave.