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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61 comments

  1. Charity O says:

    This was a fun list to look at! We have one in my Seattle neighborhood and it is a beautiful building, but hasn’t been a Library in a very long time. It used to be a nice reataurant – Now it is a bar.

  2. Michelle says:

    One is located at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg VA. It borders the Sunken Garden, is now known as Tucker Hall and houses the English department. It has a reputation for being haunted and is part of the the local ghost tour. I’ve passed it many times, walked through it a few, but never knew it was originally a Carnegie Library.

    • Yes! I kind of laughed at the idea that nobody would be familiar with Carnegie libraries, having lived for 26 years in Pittsburgh where the public library system is still called Carnegie Library! I love that he not only donated libraries but made them gorgeous buildings. Our main library is an architectural treasure. I love being there!

  3. Jeannie says:

    My hometown, Greenville, Ohio, had a Carnegie library that I truly believe caused my love affair with books and reading. I was just a farm girl, so this gorgeous building with marble floors, pillars, and endless books captured me like nothing else. It was my escape, my door to other worlds I’d never visited.

  4. Aaryn says:

    My hometown of Pacific Grove, California, has a Carnegie Library and I spent many happy hours there reading and checking out stacks of books. Later, my parents lived in Jefferson, Texas for 13 years and we would visit the Jefferson Carnegie Library, another one still operating as a library today!

  5. Megan Miller says:

    My goodness, my state has 31 Carnegie libraries, several of which are in my hometown. Most of these are still in use as libraries or are museums on the national historic building registry. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I had no idea about this and am so glad to have learned it. I looked up my hometown and discovered that the library branch I went to as a kid was a Carnegie library. I never would have known but for you.

  7. Ruth says:

    In my reading mad town of Seattle, six of the eight original Carnegie libraries are still operating as libraries. I’ve lived in a couple of those neighborhoods and visited the libraries in several others. They are glorious. The other two Carnegie libraries? The site of one is still the site of our main library (a fantastic design by Rem Koolhaas).

  8. My inner history nerd is totally wowed by this! Thanks so much for the quick mini-lesson and for the link. I had fun scrolling through the Indiana list. Old libraries are the best and it’s such a fun part of visiting new places. We often try and pop into a new local library when we visit a new town.

  9. Jaimie Ramsey says:

    The village we live in currently doesn’t have one, but before we moved here we lived virtually across the street from a former Carnegie library. (I think it actually says “Carnegie Library” on the building, where the one in your photo says “Public Library.”) It’s no longer being used as a library; the current public library is across the street in a much bigger, newer building, but it is at least still standing!

    I’m pleased to see that both the states I’ve lived in, Wisconsin and Nebraska, have had over 60 Carnegie libraries at one point or another. Both Wisconsin towns I lived in had one as well; in fact, in the town where my parents still live, the Carnegie library IS the current public library! It’s had a big addition added (in probably the 1950’s or 60’s, I would guess) but the original Carnegie-funded portion is still there and in use. We used to live just down the block from that library and spent a LOT of time there, for story time, doing homework (homeschoolers 🙂 ) and of course getting books. I also volunteered there in high school; it was my dream for a long time to become a librarian!

    Thanks for this! So fun!

  10. Renee says:

    I have loved our Carnegie library (it’s still called that, and still a library) since I moved to our tiny town, but never thought about why it is called that. We have a larger, newer library as well, but it’s hard to beat the ambiance of the grand old building! https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Foffbeatoregon.com%2Fassets-2011%2Fo1109d-carnegie-libraries%2Fcarnegie-library-albany-1800.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Foffbeatoregon.com%2Fo1109d-carnegie-libraries-in-oregon.html&docid=mBxHUcw5q7W5wM&tbnid=xKTk6H-ajSbT8M%3A&vet=10ahUKEwiNgNy2-aHTAhUD9GMKHbf6C4oQMwgbKAAwAA..i&w=1800&h=1015&hl=en-us&client=safari&bih=559&biw=375&q=albany%20carnegie%20public%20library&ved=0ahUKEwiNgNy2-aHTAhUD9GMKHbf6C4oQMwgbKAAwAA&iact=mrc&uact=8

  11. Katherine says:

    The one is my hometown is now a museum. I remember learning in school that it was a Carnegie building. Thanks for the wiki list, it was fun to check out all the libraries in California. How unfortunate that some have been demolished.

  12. Dee says:

    So fun to see the list and comments. A cute novel that involves Carnegie libraries is Katherine Center’s “Get Lucky”. I’m going to have to re-read it now with the photos. I never looked them up before. I’m from Canada, so we don’t have any.

    • Erica says:

      There are actually 125 Carnegie libraries in Canada! Most of them are in Ontario (111), but there are some others in the Yukon, B.C., New Brunswick, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.

  13. Wow I looked it up and we have one in our city, it’s actually got the (much newer) main library branch attached to it and the Carnegie building is used to house local history books, newspapers, and ephemera. I never knew anything about this. Too cool!

  14. Odette says:

    I have fond memories of the Carnegie library in my hometown. While in Scotland, I was interested to learn that the young Mr. Carnegie was denied access to the beautiful grounds in his town, ostensibly because he was poor. When he came into his wealth, he went back and BOUGHT the park so that everyone would have access!

  15. Julie says:

    This is so cool! I never knew about this. There are several in Connecticut though not my town and one looks like a larger version of your photo. I will have to take a picture and post to Instagram. I so enjoyed this post! Thank you!

  16. Kim says:

    Although our local library actually began in 1855 (to serve the working men of the area), it was a grant from the Carnegie grant for $15,000 in 1916 that resulted in the beautiful edifice that forms the core of our current library (it has been expanded to meet the growing needs of the community). The first Carnegie building housed 5,000 books and served almost 13,000 people. As of last year it’s now the repository for 168,791 books (as well as DVDs, audio books, and more) serving close to 30,000 cardholders. It’s always been one of my favorite places, and sometimes I go there just to relax for a while with a book or magazine. I will be forever grateful for the vision of Andrew Carnegie — what a gift! Here’s a link to the original building: https://www.warsawlibrary.org/assets/images/Warsaw%20photos/exterior%20WCPL1900s.jpg

  17. SoCalLynn says:

    We have a Carnegie Library in our town. It is such a beautiful building. No longer used as a library since our larger one was built next door to it in the 1970’s, it’s still used for public gatherings, art shows, and rented out for private events. The children’s summer library events are held there, too, such as science shows, and small animal handlers. The Carnegie building is still an important part of our town

  18. Mandy says:

    I loved this post so much! I absolutely love history and libraries, of course. Thanks so much for taking the time to post this. What a great little history lesson.

  19. Christine, Australia says:

    For years, when I lived there, I borrowed books from the Carnegie Library in Suva, Fiji. It is still a thriving library – in a place where there aren’t many sources of books.

  20. Wendy Panton says:

    As a library loving, book reading Scot this makes me so proud that my fellow Scot did so much great work in America and Canada. Will need to find out if he did similar in his homeland! Great article, thanks x

    • Wendy Panton says:

      Jumping with joy here my own library was funded by The Carnegie Trust and I had no idea. Literally hundreds in Scotland. Thanks for enlightening me Anne!

  21. Meg says:

    I love libraries and I am grateful that Carnegie donated so that towns across America were able to build them…but I have to say that from what I have read, he did it because his business practices had been so dirty that he needed to do something to appease his Scottish Presbyterian conscience. His culpability in the Johnstown Flood, his union busting tactics in the Homestead Strike, his insider trading…this is how he made the money he later gave away, always being certain he had some control of it and that his name was on it. He was a complex man and I don’t think these actions should be forgotten when we remember his philanthropy.

  22. Leanne says:

    When I was in elementary school in Minneapolis, my friend and I would ride our bikes to the library and stuff our bike baskets with books and read all afternoon on her front porch. I was excited to see our neighborhood library on the list!

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