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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.

Carnegie Libraries

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 16, 2017

 If you were a book reader in 1886, you would have likely grabbed a new book titled, “Triumphant Democracy: or Fifty Years March of the Republic.”


The 500 page book is “heavy,” not in the weight of the pages, but the complexity of the text and its wording.


It is a history of America written from the perspective of an immigrant who had assembled an education and the knowledge that ultimately created one of the great industrialists of the 19th Century – Andrew Carnegie.


If you read his book carefully, there were clues as to what this man was on the verge of doing in the world: funding the establishment of 2,509 public libraries in the English-speaking world.


At the end of the chapter on literature, he writes, “Triumphant Democracy is triumphant in nothing more than when its members are readers and buyers of books.”


“The monarchist boasts more bayonets, while the republican more books.  We know which weapon is the more effective in these days.  ‘The paper bullet of the brain’ is the moral dynamite of Triumphant Democracy.”


He was going to build libraries to house those “paper bullets.”


By the time this book had been published, his first library in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland had opened in 1883 in the town where his father had fellow weavers donate to a collection of books for all to share.


Between 1886 and 1896, Carnegie promised libraries in many cities containing his steel plants in Pennsylvania including Allegheny, Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Braddock, and Homestead.  In the middle of these offers was one to Fairfield, Iowa bringing forth that these offers were being extended to “other cities.”


A committee hastily formed in early 1899 in our own city, extended a request to Carnegie for one of “his libraries,” and Steubenville was granted $ 50,000 in a letter dated June 30, 1899 – the first in Ohio.


East Liverpool received the same offer, followed quickly by Sandusky; thereby making the three cities the first three in Ohio to have Carnegie Libraries.  Sandusky was the first to open to the public, as it already had the site available for construction.


Meanwhile, the Steubenville committee was studying the Pittsburgh area libraries many of which had music halls, exercise rooms, and such, and they hired Alden & Harlow Architects of Pittsburgh to design the same for Steubenville.


Those perks were only for Pittsburgh area Carnegie Libraries, and the third Wing of the Steubenville building was eliminated, although the short connector remained.  A second check for $ 12,000 from Carnegie was received as costs exceeded his original donation.


Nearly all Carnegie Libraries featured an entry staircase symbolizing a person’s elevation by learning with exterior lampposts to symbol enlightenment.


That first common feature doomed many Carnegie Library buildings by the 1960s, as they eliminated physical access by people with disabilities and efforts to renovate to remove or adapt these features caused nearly half of the buildings to disappear in use as libraries.


In our own case, years of review and study resulted in no method of renovating the building to make it accessible without huge costs.


The answer was to remove later additions for the Bookmobile and offices, and shift the building’s entrance to a street-level Slack Street location and use the original extension on the 1902 Carnegie building as a centerpiece to link to new interior stairways and an elevator.


The Carnegie building and its familiar façade will remain untouched with its new cousin building taking up the rear and providing a new entrance and lobby.


So what would Andrew Carnegie think of all of this?  Actually, he didn’t involve himself in the actual construction of the libraries, and rarely made an appearance on opening day.


He didn’t even want them named after him, and today only two of Ohio’s libraries use “Carnegie” in their names.


Like most of the nation, about half of Ohio’s 105 Carnegie buildings are no longer libraries and a dozen have been demolished.  Others are now offices, alternative public buildings, or are standing empty.


When our renovation is finished, our Carnegie will stand proud and ready to serve for another century.