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Reading 2: Obtaining a Carnegie Library
Andrew Carnegie began his philanthropy to public libraries at a time when they desperately needed help. Even with tax levies, many communities could not afford to build their own library. Most libraries were collections of books located in highly unusual places: wooden shacks, millinery shops, offices, stables, and churches. One town even had their "library" in a rest room, where the matron doubled as a librarian.
It was during his "wholesale" period of giving that Carnegie helped communities like these obtain libraries. A town in any English-speaking nation desiring a grant began by writing a letter of request to Carnegieís secretary, James Bertram, who then sent them a Schedule of Questions similar to Document 1. Carnegie and Bertram were willing to consider any completed application.
Some people, however, did not even want to ask for a grant. They objected to receiving money from Carnegie, who after 1892 had developed a reputation as a ruthless businessman. Carnegie had always said that when workers were on strike, plants such as his steel mills should be shut down. Strikebreakers (often known as "scabs") should never be used, and disputes should be peaceably negotiated.
In July 1892 the union workers at Carnegieís Homestead steel plant near Pittsburgh went on strike. Carnegie was at his home in Scotland, leaving Henry Clay Frick, second in command at Carnegie Steel, in charge. Frick decided to stop negotiating, and he locked the workers out of the plant. Frick, who was more aggressive than Carnegie in asserting managementís authority, soon hired 300 Pinkerton detectives from Pinkerton National Detective Agency to protect the plant and the nonunion work force he intended to hire. When the Pinkerton men arrived via rafts on the Monongahela River, they were met by an army of angry strikers. The next several hours of gunfire and other attacks resulted in a number of deaths and injuries. The Pennsylvania national guard finally restored order and protected the plant until the union broke that fall. Although Carnegie did not call in the detectives, he also made no effort to tell Frick not to do so, nor did he settle the strike after the violence erupted.
Homestead forever stained Carnegieís reputation. Some people accused him of building his fortune on the backs of underpaid labor; others found it ironic that he would build libraries for working men who, because of long hours on the job, could not use them. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch illustrated the feelings of many when it wrote, "Ten thousand ĎCarnegie Public Librariesí would not compensate for the direct and indirect evils resulting from the Homestead strike."¹
For the most part, however, communities still chose to complete their applications. Though Carnegie readily granted money, he also placed several conditions on his gifts. Municipalities had to own the site on which the library would be built, which often meant spending taxpayer money. The property also had to be large enough that the library could be expanded if demand rose.
The maintenance pledges that were another part of the contract could prove a major stumbling block. Carnegie required that the grant recipients agree to pay each year an amount equal to 10 percent of his gift to maintain the building his donation provided. He believed that "the community which is not willing to maintain a Library had better not possess it," but opponents argued that their taxes were already too high and that Carnegieís rules would raise them even more.
The designs towns wanted for their libraries also caused problems. Until 1908, communities that satisfied the site and maintenance pledges were free to build whatever they saw fit. However, Carnegie and Bertram thought that many of the plans were not practical, because they had expensive exteriors and inefficient interiors. For instance, Bertram discouraged fireplaces, believing that they wasted space and benefited only those closest to the heat.
In 1908 Bertram began exerting more control over designs. For three years he required grant recipients to submit plans before building began, and then he wrote a book entitled Notes on Library Bildings [sic]. Sent to every community that won a grant, Notes reflected the thinking of leading architects of libraries. It contained minimum standards and six model floor plans that provided the greatest amount of usable space consistent with good taste. It suggested a basement 9 to 10 feet high and 4 feet below natural grade and a second level 12 to 15 feet high. The most commonly adopted of the plans called for a main floor with an adult reading area on one side, a childrenís area on the other, and the librarianís desk between the two (see Drawing 1, Plan B). The front door was located in the middle, opposite the librarian. The exterior was left to the discretion of the community, but they were warned to keep the structure plain and dignified. Bertram wanted usable, practical libraries, not elaborate "Greek Temples."
Communities which failed to meet Bertramís increasingly demanding standards found their designs rejected. Using some of the simplified spellings Carnegie advocated, Bertram sent the following letter to one town in Washington state: "...the plans...in no way interpret the ideas exprest in Notes on Library Bilding. A school-boy could do that better than the plans show. If the architectís object had been how to waste space instead of how to economize it, he could not have succeeded better....If the architect cannot make a better attempt at interpreting the Notes on Library Bilding, I shall be pleased to put you in communication with architects who have shown their ability to do so."²
Bertramís standards combined with the tastes of the times to create many libraries that looked similar. The high ceilings and the second-level public areas suggested by Bertram resulted in spacious interior rooms with splendid natural lighting and ventilation. Due to these qualities, the need for a flight of stairs from the street arose. The stairs, in fact, are commonly regarded as the identifying characteristic of a Carnegie library. Some feel that Carnegie felt anybody who wanted to read ought to be willing to climb a few steps. It is true he thought that ambitious young people would be the primary users of these libraries, and that they would presumably not be troubled by a few stairs. Some say the stairs carry a symbolic message, as in "thirteen steps to wisdom." The stairs, however, created problems for older people and those who have difficulty walking.
Although Bertram insisted on the implementation of his ideas about basic design, he did not try to influence style, except to hope that it would be dignified. Perhaps this explains to some extent the frequent use of classical architectural elements in these buildings, but it is not true that stylistic similarities are the result of dictates by Bertram and Carnegie.
One matter of design, however, may be indirectly related to Carnegieís involvement. Although some big-city libraries made extensive use of sandstone, a large majority of the existing Carnegie libraries are brick. This may be explained by the fact that they were intended to be permanent public buildings. However, it may not have escaped the notice of city officials that brick, while more expensive in terms of construction costs, is less expensive than other materials to maintain. The city only had to take care of the building, while Carnegie agreed to pay for materials. None of the libraries are wood, even in communities where the lumber industry was the mainstay of the economy.
Questions for Reading 2
1. Considering the events surrounding the Homestead Strike, would you have accepted Carnegie's donation? Why or why not?
2. What were some of the obstacles that slowed communities' attempts to obtain a Carnegie library?
3. Why did Carnegie place certain requirements on communities wanting to obtain a library? Do you think his requirements were reasonable?
4. Why did James Bertram write his book?
Reading 2 was compiled from James H. Vandermeer, "Carnegie Libraries of Washington Thematic Resource" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1982.
¹ Louis M. Hacker, The World of Andrew Carnegie (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968). ² James H. Vandermeer, "Carnegie Libraries of Washington Thematic Resource" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1982, Section 8, page 3.