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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

James Bertram, Carnegie's secretary

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, May 13, 2007

Last week's article about Andrew Carnegie brought so many interested comments.

 

This week I will tell you about the man who was involved in the awarding of funds for those 2,509 Carnegie Libraries, and likely had more influence on the project than Carnegie himself.

 

His name was James Bertram, and he served as Carnegie's private secretary from 1897-1914, continuing as secretary of the Carnegie Corporation of New York until his death in 1934.

 

Like Carnegie, Bertram was born in Scotland; educated in Edinburgh. 

 

From 1890-1897, he worked in South Africa and upon returning to England he applied for the position of the private secretary to Andrew Carnegie.

 

Following a trial period, Carnegie permanently hired him.

 

It was known by 1897 that Carnegie was giving away money for libraries and church organs, so correspondence began pouring into his office for consideration.

 

Bertram organized a system in the Carnegie home on W. 51st Street in New York to handle the letters and masses of people wanting to see Carnegie about a library.

 

One of Bertram's staff described him as "thrifty, irritable, rather brusque in manner, short and direct in his speech, and a staunch Presbyterian in religion."

 

Another employee recounted that Bertram would "never use a paragraph when a sentence would do, and often a word served to take the place of a sentence."

 

He had little patience for seekers of money for libraries, and sometimes referred them to their State Library or the American Library Association for guidance.

 

As the program progressed, Bertram became frustrated with second requests for money.

 

After 1904, more controls were placed on applicants.  Building plans had to be submitted for review and approval.

 

William Howard Brett, Director of the Cleveland Public Library, was consulted for proper library design and aided Bertram in the publication of "Notes on Library Buildings," used as a guide and published by the Carnegie Corporation.

 

The site for a Carnegie Library had to be provided locally to be entitled to his money.  About a third of the sites were controversial, and the discussion often extended to the Carnegie offices where they were told it was a "local" decision.

 

The current Steubenville Library site was one of twelve considered, but the specifics of other proposed locations was never revealed.

 

Finding a site in Steubenville in 1899 large enough for a new library was difficult, as the city was crowded with homes and businesses.

 

The S. 4th Street location is unusual in that most Carnegie Libraries of the period were close to the Court House and City Building.

 

Cambridge, Zanesville, East Liverpool, and Salem are all within site of other government buildings, Steubenville is five blocks away.

 

Bertram refused to talk to architects, only local library committees.  Sometimes architects were suggested due to a prior positive experience.

 

The Steubenville building was designed by the Pittsburgh firm of Alden & Harlow, who had also designed several libraries including the Oakmont Library, a "cousin" of the Steubenville building.

 

Bertram's blunt style is seen in his letter in the Carnegie archives.

 

One library committee was told, "I have never had so much trouble with any set of plans as with yours."

 

A library committee in Centralia, Washington was told, "No wonder the people do not like the plans ... a school boy could do that better than the plans show."

 

Bertram remained active until his death at age 62, answering letters about Carnegie libraries.  Despite pleas, no more buildings were funded after 1917.

 

The Carnegie Corporation turned their interest to other venues with a wrap up report issued in 1967 showing the impact of Carnegie Libraries.