Book Smart

How America's Carnegie Libraries Adapt to Survive

A 1902 Carnegie library in Washington, D.C., opened in 2003 as a museum.

Credit: City Museum of Washington, D.C.

Every year Los Angeles residents Pat and Bernie Skehan plan their vacations to include stops at public libraries up and down the state of California, taking pictures and visiting the libraries' history rooms. Not any libraries—they specialize in libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Between 1886 and 1919, Carnegie gave more than $40 million to build 1,679 public libraries in 1,412 communities throughout the United States. By 1990, more than 200 had been demolished.

As Carnegie libraries celebrate their centennials, many communities face difficult decisions. Some buildings have deteriorated with time and use. Many are too small to serve their communities' growing populations. Some lack 21st-century amenities; others face regulatory mandates for handicapped access or seismic safety.

In 1881, Pittsburgh became the first U.S. city to receive an offer from Carnegie to fund a library building. At first, city officials turned him down because there were strings attached: Carnegie required that communities provide a site plus 10 percent of the grant amount annually to fund the library's operating expenses. Pittsburgh officials agreed to Carnegie's terms in 1890 and, eventually, nine Carnegie libraries were built in the city.

Pittsburgh's main library, a three-story Italian renaissance structure, opened in 1895. Within a few years, it became apparent that the new library was already inadequate, so Carnegie donated another $5 million for an addition. Over the years, the main library was adapted further. An elevator was added and electrical systems upgraded in the 1930s. Workers replaced the roof, added air conditioning, and renovated the children's and periodicals departments in the 1950s. The card catalog system was automated in the 1980s, and Internet access was installed in the 1990s.

Last May, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh announced plans for a major renovation and reorganization of the main library. The $2.8 million project is under way and scheduled for completion by the end of the year. It will modernize the library while preserving the building's historic interior. On the first floor, patrons will find the latest bestsellers, CDs, videos, popular magazines, even a coffee shop selling cappuccino and pastries. The updated building will also feature an interior courtyard with a bamboo garden. 

The restored Homewood Library in Pittsburgh

Credit: John W. Davis, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Various branches in the Pittsburgh library system are also being renovated, including the Homewood Branch. Built in 1910, the three-story library was restored to its original grandeur last year, with updated meeting rooms, a new elevator, handicapped-accessible restrooms, and a fully equipped 300-seat auditorium.

"I'm proud that we were able to not only restore this building, but to make it better than the original," says Herb Elish, director of the Pittsburgh library system. "We achieved a balance, preserving the old, but also making it modern."

West Side Story

Surrounded by the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges in Southern Oregon, Ashland, Ore., a town of just over 20,000, is perhaps best known as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The town received a grant of $15,000 from Carnegie on June 25, 1909, and a 7,000-square-foot library opened for business in 1914.

By the mid 1990s, the county realized that most of its 15 branches were no longer adequate and that the Ashland library was literally crumbling due to leakage problems. Activists lobbied for passage of a $38.9 million bond measure to expand and renovate existing libraries and build new ones where necessary, and county voters overwhelmingly passed the bond measure in May 2000. 

1914 photo

Credit: Ashland Public Library

Planning for the Ashland library expansion was a grassroots effort, and the town held visioning workshops, community open houses, and public hearings to find out what people wanted and expected from their library. Workers removed a 1954 addition, restored the building's original design, and constructed a 15,000-square-foot addition. Ashland's newly expanded library opened May 19, 2003.

"I'm so pleased that we saved the old Carnegie, and that the restoration was faithful to its historical design and yet truly inviting and comfortable," says Bob Wilson, Ashland's library director, who led the renovation process. "Patrons often comment on the appearance of the old wood and windows. I'm thrilled that the building no longer leaks, and we don't have to mop floors or move threatened collections when it rains."

Capital Gains

Carnegie funded the construction of four libraries in Washington, D.C., including the city's main library, built in 1902, a Beaux-Arts structure with a white marble exterior heavily ornamented with sculpture. The building was designed as a closed-stack library, meaning that library patrons had to submit requests for books and wait for staff to retrieve them. Even though it was one of the largest of the Carnegie libraries, with 60,000 square feet on three floors, the space was not well suited for open stacks.

By the mid-1950s, it became clear that it was too small for its intended purpose. The building served as the city library until 1972, when a new one opened. Washington's Carnegie stood empty through the rest of the 1970s, and as its neighborhood deteriorated, the building was repeatedly vandalized. In 1980 it was partially renovated to serve as a gateway to the University of the District of Columbia.

The museum has been closed since November 2004.

Credit: City Museum of Washington, D.C.

Then, starting in 1999, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., raised $18.8 million to convert the building to the city's first museum dedicated to the District of Columbia's history.

The new City Museum of Washington, D.C, which opened in May 2003, serves two purposes, says Barbara Franco, the society's president. "First, it gives a sense of identity to city residents who live under the shadow of the federal government," Franco says. "And secondly, it is used as a public forum where residents come together for special events."

The building's original floorplan works well as a museum. Some rooms were adapted for galleries, a reading room, classrooms, storage, and administrative offices. "I'm especially proud that we were able to keep the overall layout intact," Franco says.

Tracking the Carnegies

A 1990 survey conducted by George Bobinski, dean of the School of Information and Library Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, found that 909 Carnegie structures were still in use as libraries. Bobinski also determined that 242 of the original buildings had been demolished, 403 were being used for other purposes, such as museums and office buildings, and the status of the remaining 125 buildings was unknown.

At the moment, there is no national organization that tracks Carnegie library buildings, but some states monitor them. In California, Pat and Bernie Skehan joined forces with historian Lucy Kortum to gather information about the state's Carnegies. Kortum had compiled information about the Carnegies as part of a Master of Arts thesis in history at Sonoma State University. The Skehans traveled to California's libraries in the late 1990s, photographed them, and scanned historical pictures from the libraries' collections. They launched a Web site to chronicle the history of California's Carnegies ( Of the 142 original Carnegies in the state, 85 are still standing. Of these, 37 still serve as libraries, while the others have found new uses as museums, community centers, office buildings, even residences.

"We've found that these historic buildings are greatly valued by the local communities," Bernie Skehan says. "It's worth noting that since 1978, no Carnegie libraries have been demolished in California."

In Ohio, librarian Mary Ellen Armentrout researched the status of Ohio's 115 Carnegie libraries. She gathered photographs of each structure for a self-published book. Armentrout hopes to create an exhibition that would travel to each of the Carnegie buildings over a four-year period.

"The Carnegie buildings were very well built, and even though they're approaching 100 years, they've weathered beautifully," Armentrout says. "Without the Carnegies, we wouldn't have the strong public library system we have today."

Molly Skeen is a freelance writer and researcher living in Alameda, Calif.

This story was originally published on Preservation Online on Mar. 5, 2004.  

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Submitted by Jaxcoffee at: April 13, 2010
There will soon be a world wide historical record of each and every Carnegie Library building. We are creating what will be the first and only 3D historical record of the legacy of Andrew Carnegie. Locations of each Carnegie Library will be viewable within the 3D building layer of Google Earth. This link is to the start of the above mentioned collection. Contact us if you would like to be involved.