A few things you should know about Carnegie libraries

A few things you should know about Carnegie libraries

For National Library Week, a literary history lesson. Book lovers, you’ll be glad you know this stuff.

A year or so ago I posted this picture to my instagram:

It’s a shot of an old building on Cherokee Road, in Louisville. If you look closing, you can see the words “PUBLIC LIBRARY” etched above the doorframe. (Although it isn’t a library anymore, it’s office space. Wouldn’t you love to work here?)

I’d passed by this building—and several more like it in my town—for years, but I didn’t realize what I was looking at until a commenter filled me in. This is a classic Carnegie library, and it’s one of more than 2500 built between 1883 and 1929. About 2/3 of those are in the U.S.

Andrew Carnegie donated heaps of money to blanket the U.S. with libraries, thus the name. This was a big deal: CityLab says Carnegie did no less than build the architecture of American literacy with his 1689 libraries, thanks to the scope and timing of the project.

Carnegie had a lifelong passion for books and reading, and he was a savvy businessman. He donated the money and required communities to adhere to the Carnegie formula, a 6-step plan to ensure the community would support the library (by providing the site, paying staff, and using public funds to run it), and the library would in return support the community (by providing free service to all).

Not all Carnegie libraries look like the ones in my community—not by a long shot. It’s impossible to tell by looking whether or not a library was built with Carnegie funds, although many Carnegie libraries look quite similar, because they share the same guiding philosophy and relief on the same sample templates provided by Carnegie. To see if you have a Carnegie library in your community, check this list of all the Carnegie libraries in the U.S. I was surprised to discover my own community has nine—many of which are still in use as libraries.


Check out the list, see if you have one in your town, and tell us about your visits to/knowledge about/experiences with Carnegie libraries in comments. 

P.S. All about National Library Week, a good book about Carnegie libraries, and a beautiful coffee table book celebrating America’s public libraries.

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  1. Megan says:

    Yes! Being a Pittsburgher I forget about the reach beyond our own city! Thanks for the reminder. (And evidence that Pgh is such a philanthropic city! We’ve got more good giving habits than just Carnegie.)

  2. I wish I could add images. These libraries are beautiful. There are two Carnegie libraries here in Nashville, Tennessee which are still in use as libraries (there were originally four Carnegie libraries in Nashville). East Branch https://library.nashville.org/locations/east-branch and North Branch https://library.nashville.org/locations/north-branch I’m thrilled to say, I’ve been to both of these libraries. Although not in my area, I visited for library sales. 🙂

    If you visit the links above and scroll down, there are large images of each library.

  3. Krysta Matt says:

    The Carnegie library in my hometown (Auburn WA) later became a ballet studio. I spent a decade studying ballet there. It’s very near and dear to my heart!

  4. Aimee says:

    My branch of the library system in Denver is a Carnegie library. I love it! It has a big fireplace and it’s pretty small and cozy!

    • Meredith says:

      Our library was built in 1911 and is still fully operational and awesome in Newberg, Oregon. Yeah for the public libraries!

  5. Stacey says:

    So interesting – and Wikipedia tells me they also built over 600 in the U.K. – none here in Cambridge but lots in London.

  6. Greta says:

    I grew up going to the one in Jackson, Michigan and my aunt will be retiring soon after nearly 50 years in the Jackson library system. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Leslie says:

    While in Library School I learned about Andrew Carnegie’s wonderful gift of libraries to so many communities. As one person posted, his business practices weren’t always the best, but I am glad he chose libraries as one of his philanthropic endeavors. When Carnegie was a boy libraries weren’t free and many were only accessible to the wealthy. We have a Carnegie Library in our hometown of Bellingham, Washington, that is still a library. The beautiful library I work at in Anacortes, Washington is around the corner from the original Carnegie Library which is now a museum. Thanks for celebrating libraries during National Library Week!

  8. Melodee Skiles says:

    We recently took a little day trip to a small Montana town near us (Big Timber, population 1600) and our first stop was the Carnegie library. It was so beautiful, inside (dark paneling, built-in shelves) and outside (brick and columns)! They had such a sweet children’s area with a mural, a playhouse, blocks and puzzles. Our toddler loved it–and the books, too. 🙂 I would love a library like that in my community.

  9. Janna Clark says:

    Our little 1500 person community of Big Timber, Montana has a thriving Carnegie Library and our building looks a lot like the one in your photo. The community raised over $1 million dollars several years ago for a beautiful renovation. We are very proud of our library!

    • Melodee says:

      Janna, we are neighbors! 😀 I live in Absarokee. I posted about visiting your Big Timber Carnegie library just above your comment. 🙂

  10. Dana says:

    The Carnegie library in Tucson, AZ is now a children’s museum. Seems very in keeping with the spirit of serving a community!

  11. Lisa says:

    I had no idea! There are several that are nearby me in the Chicago suburbs, and it was fun to discover a little more about them! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Lee in KS says:

    There is a Carnegie Library in southeast Kansas, in the city of Pittsburg. About 20 years ago they enlarged the building and changed the roof; the old copper roof was removed and replaced with newer material. The copper pieces were turned into sculptures which now adorn the building both inside and outside. The new part matches the older part architectural style, as much as they could manage.

  13. Cathleen says:

    Since I’m originally from Pennsylvania and familiar with Andrew Carnegie, I was surprised and delighted to find a Carnegie library in Fiji! My children enjoyed the kids section, while I appreciated the architecture, which felt a bit like home.

  14. Beth Clark says:

    My husband’s cousin owns this building! He told us when it went on the market years ago he bought it because he wanted to have a piece of history and he didn’t want it to be demolished. I’m so glad he bought this beautiful building!

  15. Angie says:

    I learned about Carnegie libraries when I first read the Betsy-Tacy books. I now live about half hour from Mankato, the “real” Deep Valley. The library still stands but houses an art center. We haven’t been inside yet, though we have visited Betsy’s and Tacy’s homes.

  16. Georgiann Coons says:

    Our Carnegie library is one of the jewels of my hometown, Seymour, Indiana. It’s been enlarged several times, but they have kept the front facade, which looks much like the building in your neighborhood. You should come visit!

  17. Angela says:

    I didn’t know about Carnegie libraries! Thanks for this. There was 2 in my city. One was demolished in the 60s and one still stands and operates as a public library. There are a few in driving distance from me. I smell summer outings!

  18. Angela says:

    I grew up going to a Carnegie library in Gothenburg, NE. It is still the library. I love libraries and that library is full of memories for me and my siblings.

  19. Charlotte says:

    I had no idea! There are several that are nearby me in the Chicago suburbs, and it was fun to discover a little more about them! Thanks for sharing!

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