November 5, 2014

The origins of funding and architecture for Carnegie’s libraries


A Carnegie library in Boise Idaho.

A Carnegie library in Boise Idaho.

Between 1893 and 1919, steel baron Andrew Carnegie paid more than 1.3 billion dollars to build 1,698 libraries in the United States, Kriston Capps reports for City Lab.

While many communities were thrilled to accept the money to invest in public libraries, others were more hesitant:

It wasn’t obvious to every community that they should take Carnegie’s money. Some communities rankled over his requirements that the town demonstrate a plan for permanently funding library operations. Others simply refused on principle. Louisville, Kentucky, shot down a grant offer from Carnegie, on grounds that will sound familiar from present-day arguments over infrastructure spending.

One example noted in the piece is a 1899 article in the New York Times that covered  Louisville’s decision. It quotes the The Evening Post in statement about why Louisville decided not accept $125 thousand dollars to build a public library:

In the judgement of The Evening Post, Louisville does not want a Carnegie library as a free gift. Louisville is not a pauper city, and must not accept gifts from Princes not of her own people. It was bad enough to attempt to build here a library by licensed gambling; it would not be right to erect on those gambling foundations a structure that would be a monument to beggary. Louisville is able and willing to maintain a library, but it will not build a monument to Mr. Carnegie, nor will it tax itself for any private corporation.

For the communities that did accept the money, they often followed plans in a pamphlet called “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings” given to them by Carnegie’s secretary James Bertram. This is why so many Carnegie libraries look alike.

Today, Capps notes, it’s not clear how many libraries still exist. Many of them have been changed from their original form, and some have incorporated modern architecture as they have expanded. “Across the nation, the libraries that Andrew Carnegie built have been transformed and reused as historical museums, city halls, art centers, and even bars and restaurants, sometimes by dramatic means.”

The buildings that have remained libraries have struggled to make entrances accessible, since the Carnegie template often incorporated staircases. But other features—like windows to allow natural lighting and community spaces—are valued architectural features of the contemporary public library.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.