The Best Buildings: Carnegie Libraries

I still remember the sound of creaking hardwoods and the smell of aged ink and paper tucked with cloth-covered hardback bindings lined up on shelf after shelf of the old library in my county. Trips to the Putnam County Library were special occasions, reserved for trips to Greencastle when we didn’t have too many errands to run. My family lived in the country, a good 20-minute drive from the county seat, and errands were grouped and carried out on a weekly basis.

Of course, living so far from the library wasn’t such a bad thing when there was the magical bus that brought books to us. The Putnam County Library Bookmobile made its rounds to the elementary schools in our county on a bi-weekly schedule. If we didn’t already have one, we could sign up for a library card right there on the bus. Although I had been a card-carrying member of the library for years by the time I made my first visit to the Bookmobile. With an older brother who had gone to school four years ahead of me, I had looked forward to that day when my turn would come.

The selection was smaller than at the library itself, of course, but the Bookmobile librarian knew what kids liked, and the shelves were packed tightly with picture books and chapter books, stories and information we couldn’t get at our school library.

Sometimes I wish I was the girl who had kept meticulous records of every book I read from the library and bookmobile. I know that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time trilogy and Judy Blume’sBlubber and Are You There God It’s Me Margaret served as important coming of age narratives for me, but I don’t remember if I got them from the library or purchased them on one of my occasional trips to Walden Books in the mall about an hour from my house. I wrote poetry as a child, but had I accidentally discovered verse in those library stacks? I can’t remember. When I had school research papers, my mom took me to the library to research. But what was the topic?

Oddly, the library didn’t leave me a lot of memories in specific. But here’s what it did give me: knowledge, inspiration, possibility, hope. It didn’t matter how old or rich or pretty I was. Color, gender, and religion didn’t figure into it, either. I didn’t even need to be all that smart or interesting or popular. I was welcome to walk into the library, look around for a while, and borrow a book or two. There really was only one rule to follow: bring the books back on time in the same condition I found them.

My old library itself still stands where I found it, though not in the same condition. It was built in 1902 and 1903 with a $20,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation. All the years during the 1970s and 1980s when I patronized the library, it was unchanged from its original design and construction — the smells and creaks proved that. In 1996 the library was expanded significantly, though it still exists under the same original mandate from Andrew Carnegie himself as written in The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge:  “to establish free libraries, that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to that noble man.”

That “noble man” was Colonel Anderson, a retired merchant who allowed Carnegie and other boys to use his personal collection of books. That generosity inspired Carnegie later in life to spend $60 million to fund a system of 1,689 public libraries across the country. My state of Indiana received grants for 164 of those libraries, more than any other single state.

According to Indiana Public Media, public libraries were a symbol to Carnegie of “the meritocratic philosophy of success through self-improvement.” Even the design and system of “open stacks” in Carnegie’s libraries in the early 20th century meant “patrons no longer relied upon a clerk to retrieve their books, but could browse the collection themselves.” I think that’s what I loved best: meandering from shelf to shelf, collecting a stack to sit with for a while, then carefully choosing what to take home.

More than half of the Carnegie libraries in the country are still operating as libraries, including 100 in Indiana. But many of those buildings that still serve book-loving patrons have been expanded, upgraded, and retrofitted for the 21st century with multimedia stations, high speed internet, and coffee shops or other amenities. Like the library from my growing-up days, the library in my current home town of Frankfort also was constructed through a Carnegie grant and was remodeled decades after its construction.

There is also the handful of Carnegie’s remaining buildings that have gone on to have a second life, much like Carnegie himself who began his philanthropic giving in earnest after the sale of his business to J.P. Morgan and his United States Steel Corporation in 1901. One of those buildings is Woody’s Library, a popular restaurant in downtown Carmel, Indiana. I had heard of the chef-owned establishment for years before my husband and I tried it. I had been told it was “like” a library, with book shelves all around. But when we walked in the first time, I knew there was something more. The creak of the floor and the way the tables were nestled among bookshelves felt familiar. Though all I could smell when I walked in was a waft of the evening’s special, I suspected that when the stove was off and the staff was filling salt shakers and rolling silverware, the smell of old ink and paper still lingered.

When I opened up the book-shaped menu and saw the history of the building, I finally knew for sure. This restaurant wasn’t like a library. It was a library. It was a Carnegie, built just a few years after my own town’s library. The construction wasn’t identical, but the steps leading up to the heavy wooden doors, the large windows all around, and of course, that wooden floor were tell-tale.

“Carnegie libraries are still the best buildings in many towns,” Susan Stamberg once said in an NPR piece about Andrew Carnegie. That’s true of many of the small towns in Indiana. But Carnegie libraries weren’t just about improving towns. They were about improving opportunities for patrons. If you ask me, Carnegie libraries are still the best buildings in many people’s lives. Mine especially.

Photo by Tom Bower, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on February 11, 2016.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.

  • Beverly ,

    I love this! Yes to the smell of ink and paper, the creak of the floors, the joy of having a library card! Your description was perfect.