Carnegie Libraries: the bequest that continues to benefit

Lauren camp june 2015 009

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923.

Reading and libraries played a key role in Carnegie’s life, particularly during his childhood in Scotland and his teenage years in Pennsylvania. While working as telegraph operator for the Pittsburgh office of the Ohio Telegraph Co. beginning at just age 16, Carnegie borrowed books from Col. James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 volumes to working boys each Saturday night.

Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, he began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations. Carnegie required recipients to:

  • Demonstrate the need for a public library;
  • Provide the building site;
  • Annually provide 10 percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and,
  • Provide free service to all.

In areas where segregation was the de facto rule, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

The Carnegie Library shown above is in Union, SC. It was built in 1905 at a cost of $10,000 and is one of 14 libraries Carnegie libraries funded in South Carolina.

It features Beaux-Arts design, with a prominent dome, interior and exterior columns, a stained glass ceiling and stained glass windows. The exterior is highlighted by an ornamental red and yellow brick facade.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

In 2009, the Union Carnegie Library was voted the best small library in the country by the trade publication, Library Magazine.

The library received $1.25 million from the SC Legislature in 2013 for renovations; repairs were made to the roof and other parts of the building as part of that makeover.

The Union Carnegie Library was the first of 14 library buildings in South Carolina to be funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Its book collection was largely formed by the gift of books from the Union Literary Society which dated back to 1803.

Today, it continues to serve residents of Union and Union County.

That’s hardly surprising as the vast majority of the 1,689 Carnegie Libraries built in the US are still in existence, with more than half still serving as libraries.

9 thoughts on “Carnegie Libraries: the bequest that continues to benefit

  1. We have a Carnegie Library in my local town, though it is now owned by Fingal County Council and used as a community hall, etc. Lovely building. Quite a few of them around Dublin though I’m not sure any of them are still part of the original Trust.

    • They tend to be so much more attractive than some modern libraries, although I realize that modern libraries usually have to be much larger to be more accommodating in terms of services and technology.

      It’s nice your hometown preserved the building, even if it wasn’t able to continue to use it as a library.

      • I read an article a few years ago about the importance of the Carnegie Libraries in Ireland during the early 1900s, when educational opportunities for Irish Catholics remained relatively restricted under British rule. Local communities, especially in the rural west, actively competed with each to receive funding from the UK Carnegie Trust (the libraries worked through the British-based trustees). I think that several libraries became covert HQs for the Irish Republican Army during the revolutionary period. I know that one of the largest libraries, in Cork City, was lost when the British Occupation Forces burned the city in December 1920. My own local library, in a bit of a “garrison town” which housed plenty of British officers and colonial officials, has a less storied history. Probably just as well or it might not have survived.

    • Thanks for your note – who would have thought that a man renown in his time for steel would leave as one of his lasting legacies libraries most all built of bricks and mortar? And the ones I’ve seen, like yours, are indeed beautiful treasurers.

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