It might seem like an inconsequential thing to add to a bucket list, but it’s on mine for a reason. I always get the same reverent feeling walking into a library as I do entering a church, but there’s something about a Carnegie library that intensifies the experience. When I finally made my way to the Carnegie Community Centre, I wasn’t disappointed, even though the library itself is quite small and the actual structure has been re-purposed.
I was first introduced to Carnegie libraries in one of library technician courses, and I’ve been fascinated and inspired by them ever since. Through his foundation, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), an American industrialist, awarded to those who applied and agreed to meet certain conditions, construction grants for the express purpose of building a library. His intent was to foster lifelong learning.
In doing so, he introduced the concept of the public lending library with which we are familiar today. Previously, most libraries were academic or privately operated, and largely inaccessible to the general public unless they were willing to pay for the privilege.
I originally had the impression that he funded the building of public libraries only in North America. He started small – building them in places to which he had a personal connection (Scotland, Pennsylvania). But by 1929, a total of 2,509 libraries had been built. And yes, while the majority were in the United States, Carnegie grant money funded the construction of library buildings world-wide including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Talk about giving back.
While each Carnegie library is unique, they do share some similar architectural features. Back when Carnegie first started funding the construction of community libraries, the designs were innovative, devised to impress yet welcome everyone (there were, for example, no separate reading rooms for women). Features that characterize a Carnegie library include, classical colonnades supporting triangular pediments and then crowned by a dome.