Carnegie library

From Academic Kids

A Carnegie library, opened in 1913 in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, designed in Spanish Colonial style
A Carnegie library, opened in 1913 in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, designed in Spanish Colonial style

Carnegie libraries for both public use and academic institutions were built with money donated by American businessman Andrew Carnegie, earning him the nickname, the Patron Saint of Libraries. Of the 2,509 funded between 1883 and 1929, 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 156 in Canada, and others in New Zealand, the Caribbean, the West Indies and Fiji. Very few towns that requested a grant and agreed to his terms were refused. When the last grant was made in 1919, there were 3,500 libraries in the United States, nearly half of them paid for by Carnegie.

In the early 20th century, a Carnegie library was the most imposing structure in hundreds of small communities from Maine to California. Contrary to the belief of many people, most of the library buildings were unique, displaying a number of different Beaux-Arts and other architectural styles, including Italian Renaissance, Classical Revival and Spanish Colonial. Each style was chosen by the community and was typically simple and formal, welcoming patrons to enter through a prominent doorway. Outside virtually every branch, a lamp post or lantern symbolized enlightenment. See also: Carnegie libraries image gallery

The first of Carnegie's public libraries opened in his hometown, Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1883. As with most of the others, contrary to common perception, his name did not appear on the building. Rather, he had a motto -- "Let there be light" -- inscribed over the entrance. His first library in the United States was built in 1889 in Braddock, Pennsylvania, home to one of the Carnegie Steel Company's mills.

Detail of the entrance to the Carnegie library pictured above
Detail of the entrance to the Carnegie library pictured above

Self-Improvement through Learning

Books and libraries were always an important part of Carnegie's life, beginning with his childhood in Scotland. There he listened to readings and discussions of books from the Tradesman's Subscription Library that his father helped create. Later, in the United States, while working for the local telegraph company in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, he borrowed books from the personal library of Colonel James Anderson, who opened the collection to his workers every Saturday. In his autobiography, Carnegie credited Anderson with providing an opportunity for "working boys" (that some said should not be "entitled to books") to acquire the knowledge to improve themselves. (Andrew Carnegie: A Tribute: Colonel James Anderson, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh [1] (

Carnegie's personal experience as an immigrant who, with help from others, worked his way into a position of wealth reinforced his belief in a society based on merit where anyone who worked hard could become successful. This conviction was a major element of his philosophy of giving in general, and of his libraries as its best known expression.

Fields for philanthropy

Carnegie believed in giving to the "industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others." (Andrew Carnegie, "The Best Fields for Philanthropy," The North American Review, Volume 149, Issue 397, December, 1889 [2] ( His other stated "best fields" for donating surplus wealth were universities, health care institutions, public parks, assembly halls, public swimming pools, and churches.

Nearly all of Carnegie's libraries were built according to "The Carnegie Formula" which required the town that received the gift to:

  • demonstrate the need for a public library;
  • provide the building site; and
  • annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library's construction to support its operation.

The amount of money donated to most communities was based on U.S. Census figures and averaged approximately $2 per person. While there were some communities that refused to seek a grant, considering Carnegie's money to be tainted by his business practices, or disdaining the libraries as memorials to himself, the mailbox of James Bertram, Carnegie's personal secretary who ran the program, was always full of requests.

The impact of Carnegie's philanthropy was maximized by its perfect timing. It came during the peak of library expansion in the US. By 1890, many states had begun to take an active role in organizing public libraries, and the new buildings filled a tremendous need. Interest in libraries was heightened at a crucial time in their early development by Carnegie's high profile and his genuine belief in their importance. (Bobinski, p. 191)

Self-service stacks

Missing image
Carnegie library interior, with the typical centrally-located librarian's desk and innovative open stacks

"The Carnegie libraries were important because they had open stacks which encouraged people to browse....People could choose for themselves what books they wanted to read," according to Walter E. Langsam, an architectural historian and teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Before Carnegie, patrons had to ask a clerk to retrieve books from closed stacks. (Al Andry, New Life for Historic Libraries, The Cincinnati Post, October 11, 1999 [3] (

Continuing legacy

While hundreds of the library buildings have been repurposed -- as museums, community centers, office buildings and residences -- or destroyed, more than half of them still serve their communities, many in middle-to-low income neighborhoods, over a century after their construction. For example, Carnegie libraries still form the nucleus of the New York Public Library system in New York City, with 31 of the original 39 buildings still in operation.

Distribution of U.S. Carnegie libraries in 1920

Alphabetical by State   Ranked by Number

Alabama 14   Indiana 165
Alaska 0   California 142
Arizona 4   Illinois 106
Arkansas 4   New York 106
California 142   Ohio 106
Colorado 36   Iowa 101
Connecticut 11   Nebraska 69
Delaware 0   Minnesota 64
District of Columbia 4   Wisconsin 63
Florida 10   Michigan 61
Georgia 24   Kansas 59
Hawaii 1   Pennsylvania 59
Idaho 10   Washington 44
Illinois 106   Massachusetts 43
Indiana 165   Colorado 36
Iowa 101   New Jersey 36
Kansas 59   Missouri 33
Kentucky 23   Texas 32
Louisiana 9   Oregon 31
Maine 18   South Dakota 25
Maryland 14   Georgia 24
Massachusetts 43   Oklahoma 24
Michigan 61   Kentucky 23
Minnesota 64   Utah 23
Mississippi 11   Maine 18
Missouri 33   Montana 17
Montana 17   Wyoming 16
Nebraska 69   Alabama 14
Nevada 1   Maryland 14
New Hampshire 9   South Carolina 14
New Jersey 36   Tennessee 13
New Mexico 3   Connecticut 11
New York 106   Mississippi 11
North Carolina 10   Florida 10
North Dakota 8   Idaho 10
Ohio 106   North Carolina 10
Oklahoma 24   Louisiana 9
Oregon 31   New Hampshire 9
Pennsylvania 59   North Dakota 8
Rhode Island 0   Arizona 4
South Carolina 14   Arkansas 4
South Dakota 25   District of Columbia 4
Tennessee 13   Vermont 4
Texas 32   New Mexico 3
Utah 23   Virginia 3
Vermont 4   West Virginia 3
Virginia 3   Hawaii 1
Washington 44   Nevada 1
West Virginia 3   Alaska 0
Wisconsin 63   Delaware 0
Wyoming 16   Rhode Island 0

See also


External links


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