When picturing library buildings, many people envision a dignified brick or stone building, often rectangular or square, with pillars and porticos. Many of the real buildings that inspire this vision were built with grants from Andrew Carnegie. The Carnegie buildings in the United States and Scotland are well documented, but Carnegie donated money to other countries as well. Canada could at one time boast 125 free public libraries in Carnegie buildings.
Carnegie's grant program had a great influence on both library architecture and the establishment and growth of free public libraries. The combination of Carnegie's granting money for buildings and the conditions that he placed on them (i.e., that towns and cities must provide for the maintenance and operation of the libraries and that the libraries must remain free to the public) created perfect conditions for the advancement of the free public library, even in small communities. Libraries no longer had to operate out of private homes, nor did readers have to pay a subscription fee. With the recent reintroduction of user fees for public libraries by several cities, the importance of Carnegie's gift is underlined. When an attempt was made to introduce a fee in Winnipeg, the agreement with Andrew Carnegie that their two branch libraries built with his money would always be free had an impact on their final decision. The Winnipeg Public Library is still free. Unfortunately, Edmonton demolished its glorious Carnegie library long before the question of user fees came up, so there was no contract impeding the establishment of the $12 per year library card fee.
I find it fascinating that Andrew Carnegie considered every detail when dispersing his money. He did not believe in pure charity, but instead felt that the best use of money was to create opportunities for self-education. And what better place for self-education than a library! But even there, he did not simply hand his money out. His restrictions ensured that the poor would have access to books, and that the cities would take responsibility for the upkeep of the building. Too often, wealthy individuals bequeath a sum for the construction of a building, but the community or organization cannot afford to maintain it.
It is unfortunate that many cities around the world have chosen to demolish their Carnegie library buildings. The cities where Carnegie libraries remain are often extremely proud of them. They serve as a reminder not only of an age in which buildings were built to last, but also of a time when libraries first became essential services for communities. They also remind us of a man who gave away 90% of his vast fortune for the betterment of humankind. They remind us of communities that pulled together and convinced their city and town councils of the importance of libraries. This last reminder is especially vital to us today, when budget cuts are threatening our libraries.
Before taking Dr. Brundin's Facilities Planning course, I knew Andrew Carnegie only as the patron of Carnegie Hall. Researching Canada's Carnegie libraries was a wonderful foray into Canada's library history. I was surprised that no work had been published about all of the libraries outside of Ontario, and although often faced with contradictory information, I thoroughly enjoyed writing about the different communities and their libraries. They were all fascinating stories. I believe that it is important for Canadians to be more aware of their history, and this is one aspect that I would highly promote.
Any further information, comments or questions may be directed to Wendy Grønnestad at firstname.lastname@example.org
This paper was originally written in July 2001 for LIS 587 (Facilities Planning for Libraries and Information Centres), a course offered by the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and instructed by Dr. Robert E. Brundin. It was converted to HTML in March 2003 to fulfil the requirements of LIS 600 (Capping Exercise).