Carnegies; Many Have Been Ruined, Remodeled, or Both. A New Report on the Status of a Legacy

By Bobinski, George S. | American Libraries, April 1990 | Go to article overview

Carnegies; Many Have Been Ruined, Remodeled, or Both. A New Report on the Status of a Legacy


Bobinski, George S., American Libraries


Carnegies

Many have been ruined, remodeled, or both A new report on the status of a legacy

America's Carnegie libraries are in a state of ferment. Many of the original buildings have disappeared, replaced by new structures. Some Carnegie buildings have been so extensively remodeled and expanded that the original is little evident. Conversely, and in the nick of time, the movement toward restoration and preservation--as well as expansion that blends with and complements the old structure--has gained momentum. Here's a glimpse at what has gone on since AL's last report on Carnegies (Apr. 1981, p. 184).

Andrew Carnegie's dream

Between 1889 and the mid 1920s, Carnegie funds built 1,679 public library buildings in 1,412 U.S. communities. This had a great impact on public library development. Free public libraries supported by local taxation had begun in Boston in 1849 and were slowly spreading through the country. Andrew Carnegie's benefactions made them leap forward. Here was an internationally famous celebrity who chose libraries as a primary target for his philanthropy.

He also attached two conditions to his offer of money for a public library building--the local community had to provide a suitable site and formally agree to continuous support for the library through local tax funds. The latter solidified acceptance of the concept of tax support for libraries.

Carnegie's benevolence influenced hundreds of local philanthropists who then supported their libraries on a smaller scale. Nine hundred public libraries in 1896 grew to some 3,873 by 1925. We now have about 9,000 public libraries in the U.S. with some 6,000 additional branch library locations.

Carnegie also provided funds for 108 academic library buildings in the U.S. Indeed, his library philanthropy was international; he donated $56,162,622 for a total of 2,509 library buildings throughout the English-speaking world.

But it was Carnegie public library benefactions in this country that provided the greatest impact on our library development and on American history. Carnegie libraries have become part of Americana. Built largely in small towns across the nation, they are often loved and idolized by their communities.

Fireplaces and stained glass

Most Carnegies were well-built and have held up nobly over time and heavy use. Fireplaces, high ceilings, stained glass, marble, fine woodwork, and grand entrances and facades with steep stairs leading to "the temple of learning" are some of their frequent architectural features.

But many of these are also features that have made them problems for modern-day use. The high ceilings and large windows make the libraries expensive to heat and cool. Immovable walls limit space flexibility. Outmoded electrical wiring has to be replaced for the new AV and computer equipment. Some Carnegies have simply become too small, as collections, staff have and users have increased.

Remodeling and renovation have frequently included conversion of the basement into a children's room, a new entrance and/or elevator to provide access for the handicapped, rearranging the interior, adding new furnishing, new lighting, heating, air conditioning, and insulation, as well as such aesthetically questionable practices as the lowering of ceilings.

At the same time, the sentiment is strong for preservation and even restoration. And so with remodeling or expansion have also come sandblasting and tuck-pointing the exterior, and cleaning and restoring the interior to its original color and appearance.

This movement for preservation and restoration has also been expressed in other ways. California's Office of Historic Preservation recently initiated a project to identify, register, and protect the state's remaining 142 Carnegie library buildings, which officials say represent California's most interesting and architecturally valuable civic buildings. …

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