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A few words about Carnegie libraries…


“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”

From general encounters I’ve had with folks who are willing to actually look at old buildings, I gather that all Carnegie libraries are alike, which is tantamount to saying “all Koreans look alike” or “all SUVs look alike.” (Confidentially, I’m inclined to agree with the vehicular observation.) Things only seem alike because we neither care nor take the time to distinguish one from another; there is little payback for being observant — with the possible exception of snakes and mushrooms.

I will agree with those of you who say there is a remarkable similarity among U.S. public libraries of the years 1900-1920. Andrew Carnegie paid for a bunch of them — more than 1,800, actually — so we should expect some degree of likeness among those he financed and the rest that followed suit. But the reaction I get from some is that these buildings were “… built from the same set of plans,” as if there is really only one Carnegie library. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

(Parenthetically, I should tell you that there are only a few genuinely unique things in the universe. There is, for example, only one fruitcake, which is dutifully passed from one of us to another lucky recipient at Christmas; I’ve had it three times and wonder where it is right now, because I’m due for a return visit. There is also only one polka, which is played faster or slower or backwards and upside-down at various wedding receptions I’ve attended. And then there is love, which is unique in a different way: mine is mine alone to give and is given anew each time. But that’s a topic for another day. Back to Andrew Carnegie’s benefaction.)

Carnegie’s giving can be divided into two periods: retail and wholesale. Early in his desire to provide opportunities for self-improvement, A.C. built a few libraries in a handful of places, mostly locations where he had factories and employees. But soon he got the “giving bug” and began a twenty-year campaign that hasn’t been met until Bill Gates came along. We should all be so stricken and have the resources to improve the lives of our fellow creatures. (Take note, Tea Partyers.)

In the second or wholesale phase, there were only two criteria for receiving a Carnegie grant: 1) the provision of a center-city lot, accessible to the majority of people by foot or public transport–that is, a site nearest the people most likely to need a library and least likely to afford a book–and 2) an agreement to fund the library operations at a rate of ten percent of the original grant. Grants were awarded in $2,500 increments based on population determined in the most recent U.S. census. The majority of grants were in the $15,000 range, but that amount could get you a lot of building 100 years ago.

A few years into the program, Carnegie wondered how his money was being invested. He had set no criteria for architecture and rarely, if ever, saw the completed buildings. So Carnegie hired a consultant to evaluate the buildings erected in his name but the report must have shocked him! Carnegie was, after all, a thrifty Scot who expected buildings to be efficient and economical. What he got was quite the opposite. Local building committees (in the Age of the Robber Barons and before implementation of an income tax) had assumed Carnegie’s motive was immortality, and so they gave him ceremonial stairways, domed rotundas and, of course, the requisite inscription above the door with Carnegie’s name in Roman letters as big as the man himself. One can only imagine the donor’s Calvinist Presbyterian fury upon learning what he had bought and wrought.


One result of the survey was a pamphlet titled “Notes on Library Bildings.” Yes, “bildings.” Among other quirks, A.C. promoted spelling reformed, thinking that language, especially the printed page, wasted a great deal of ink and paper with extraneous spellings like “thought” instead of “thot.” Bet you never considered Andrew Carnegie to be the precursor of text messaging. LOL!

Carnegie’s 1909 pamphlet tried to address the wastefulness represented by his initial batch of wholesale funding by providing simple, single-line diagrams; I certainly wouldn’t call them plans. Finding an architect was still a local responsibility. So those of you who say Carnegie provided plans or even suggested the name of an architect are flat out wrong and need to be set straight.

There is something truly wondrous about these diagrams. You want Neo-Classical? Swell. Wrap the damned thing in limestone, prop some Tuscan columns on the front (but make certain they’re in even numbers) and there you are: Ancient Rome. Feeling a little more modern, maybe even Progressive? No problem. These can be wrapped in shaggy, shale-cut brick under a low-pitched roof and voila! You have a Frank Lloyd Wright “Prairie School” knock-off. French Renaissance? Spanish Colonial? Well, you get the picture. These diagrams and their ultimate physical presence in our cultural landscape are virtually independent of one another.

All this having been said, Carnegie-funded and Carnegie-influenced public libraries of the years 1900-1920 are an astounding contribution to American history. He and the communities that he underwrote created a new building type (oops, I meant to say bilding), a type exported to Britain, Europe, Latin America and even farther afield. We should take pride in this and revel in their endless variation upon a single, simple theme. So the next time you spot a Carnegie library, don’t take it for grated and pleez don’t tell me it looks like every other one you’ve seen. Deal?

1 Comment

  1. […] or more architects in a twenty-year period were destined (doomed?) from the outset to produce a family resemblance. How could it have been otherwise with such a simple program: 1) a suitably formal entry […]

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