“The taste for reading is one of the most precious possessions of life… I should much rather be instrumental in bringing to the working man or woman this taste than mere dollars. It is better than a fortune. When this library is supported by the community, as Pittsburgh is wisely to support her library, all taint of charity is dispelled. Every citizen of Pittsburgh, even the very humblest, now walks into this, his own library, for the poorest laborer contributes his mite indirectly to its support. The man who enters a library is in the best society this world affords; the good and the great welcome him, surround him, and humbly ask to be allowed to become his servants; and if he himself, from his own earnings, contributes to its support, he is more of a man than before.”
Andrew Carnegie at the Presentation of the Carnegie Library to the People of Pittsburgh, November 5, 1895 (via)
A couple of hours from Columbus is the quaint little town of Greenville. We’ve driven through a few times, and decided to stop for the Annie Oakley Festival. While we though the Festival was disappointing (though learning Annie is a native Ohioan was very exciting), driving around town we saw several handsome older buildings, including this one—the Greenville Public Library, built from 1901-03. A fan of classically-inspired architecture, I of course couldn’t resist capturing the stately library with a few photographs.
As you can possibly tell from my second photo, the library was expanded in 2007-08, and though I was most interested in the original building, I do think the architects did a good job designing the addition so it would be in keeping with the original building.
Though Greenville had enjoyed a small public library since 1889, the people of the city recognized the need for something more substantial—particularly when their citizenry-sponsored and -operated little library kept outgrowing the spaces and buildings designated for its use! As it happened, this need arose at the same time Pittsburgh titan Andrew Carnegie was already deeply involved in sending donations to towns across the globe—donations meant to fund the building and maintenance of free public libraries.
Andrew Carnegie’s tremendous generosity (having given away $350,695,653 at the time of his death, his will stipulated that am additional $30,000,000 be given away; much of his fortune went to the building of libraries) is responsible for helping build just over 2,500 libraries around the world, libraries distinct at the time due to their “open stack” system—before the Carnegie libraries began to be built, library patrons had to ask a clerk to retrieve from closed stacks the books desired. This, as you can imagine, kept people from browsing at will and, thus, from finding new things. Book-lovers such as myself are probably shrinking in dismay from the idea that one simply went into the library and could only bring home what they were seeking instead of being able to wander amongst the stacks, browsing and bringing home whatever struck our fancy as well as served our needs!
The people of Greenville petitioned Mr. Carnegie for a donation; after they agreed to meet his usual requirements for such a gift (demonstrating need, providing a site for the new building, a commitment to provide 10% of the library’s construction costs to support its continuing operation, and of course the agreement to provide free service to all comers), he suggested Greenville be given $15,000. But being smart types (after all, they wanted a library and had asked Carnegie for help!), the board had already investigated Pittsburgh’s vaunted (and mostly Carnegie-built) library system, and asked Mr. Carnegie for $25,000, pledging $2,500 a year of the town’s funds to support the library.
Mr. Carnegie agreed to the additional $10,000. However, the board members later discovered that the building would cost nearer $30,000—but before they could change their plans, local businessman Henry St. Clair insisted on making up the difference. The accountants did a fair job, by the way—the building, completed in March of 1903, cost a grand total of $31,177.50, and that includes stained glass windows, wood panelling, frescoes and mosaics, beautiful murals inspired by ancient Egypt, and a marble finish on the first-floor restrooms. You may see a few photos of the library, presumably from the early part of the 2oth century, here.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 (as most Carnegie libraries are, whether they retain their original purpose or not), the library has also built a very pretty pollinator garden in front of the new wings (of course you know that made me a happy gal!). The new portions of the building, which cost $2,800,000, were privately funded via a Capital Campaign.
I’d have liked to take a peek (and some photos) inside, but it was just poor timing on our part during the visit, and there’s always the danger of my being unable to resist leaving without an armful of books I’d have to drive several hours to return (truly, I have a book problem like you wouldn’t believe!). Even so, wandering about the building’s exterior was an enjoyable pastime. The Carnegie libraries have always interested me—it was such a wonderful thing for Mr. Carnegie to do for countless people, and all he wished to ensure was that the library would find continued support so that men and women worldwide could elevate themselves and perhaps their position in life through reading and the knowledge thus gained. He had been blessed by a generous man’s library during his own youth, and rightfully wished to grant that opportunity to others.
1,554 of Carnegie’s libraries remain, and 911 of them still serve their original function; it’s probably a silly idea, but I would enjoy driving around the US and Canada to seek out and photograph the remaining Carnegie libraries—perhaps once I complete my Route 66 project, I can take this one on! Besides, Mr. Carnegie was a Scot, and I’m positive he’d approve of a collie owner working on such a project. Don’t you agree?
Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Library Legacy (Wisconsin-focused, but a good read nonetheless)
List of Carnegie libraries in the USA
Read about Carnegie libraries built in Canada
The Library History Buff has a whole page dedicated to Andrew Carnegie’s passion for libraries
Andrew Carnegie—Giving Carnegie Libraries, April 1905, via the Digital History Project
Vintage postcards featuring Carnegie (and other) libraries from sea to shining sea