Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Carnegie Libraries of the East Bay

Carnegie libraries are public institutions that were built using money donated by Scottish-American millionaire and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 Carnegie's charitable endowment funded the creation of over 2,500 public libraries, with over half of them being built in the United States. Carnegie's endowment was incredibly generous and few cities that applied for these funds and agreed to his terms were denied.
Carnegie believed explicitly in the power of the individual and the meritocratic nature of American society, where ambitious individuals would have the means to improve themselves and their lot in life. As a young immigrant he knew all too well the struggles of the poverty stricken and the working class and his desire to create these libraries was fueled by his belief in the democritization of knowledge and the right of an individual to pursue personal development and fulfillment. Of particular importance is the fact that these libraries were conceived of as public facilities and were open to all patrons. One of the requirements of the Carnegie Formula, the guidelines that cities were required to meet in order to receive the endowment, was that these libraries provide free service to any resident. Central to Carnegie's personal philosophy, and based on his experience as a young immigrant to the United States, was the idea that these libraries and their materials were to be made available to the underserved.

The East Bay was lucky enough to receive a large number of Carnegie library donations in the first quarter of the 20th century. Alameda, Berkeley, Richmond, Antioch, San Mateo, Concord, Hayward, Vacaville, San Rafael, Monterey, Livermore, Mill Valley, Vallejo, San Anselmo, Redwood City, Walnut Creek, and Palo Alto all received grants to create city libraries. San Francisco opened seven Carnegie libraries, and Oakland has four. Many of these libraries are still open in the original buildings.

It's easy to ask, "why libraries?" Of all the charitable endowments that were possible, why on earth did Andrew Carnegie spend nearly forty years of this life opening public libraries in small towns across the English-speaking world? The simple answer is that Carnegie, along with the residents of the cities that were lucky enough to receive the endowment, believed that libraries offered concrete and definitive benefits to the city and it's people. The fact that these libraries are still open, still offering the same services, and are still heavily patronized, beloved, and publicly supported institutions, in many cases after over a century of continual operation, should tell us a thing or two about the importance, the power, and the long-standing benefit of a small town library. Carnegie's philosophy centered on an individual's potential to empower themselves with knowledge, and generations of American citizens have embraced this perspective by using public libraries to work, play, learn, and grow.
We're at an unfortunate crossroads in the history of public libraries and many people are asking if these institutions are relevant or sustainable. It's not my place to politicize the topic, or stand on a soap box and convince anyone that these institutions are vital to the intellectual and social life of our communities, but I would ask where we would be without the services that are offered daily, free of charge, to all comers, at these libraries, and if we would not be poorer if we lacked them.

Fun facts about Carnegie libraries
-Carnegie libraries were the first libraries to be built around the open stack model, encouraging patrons to browse the shelves and to find materials for themselves, as opposed to having librarians page materials from closed stacks. This tied in with Carnegie's belief that his libraries were to benefit the ambitious and were created to serve those who would make the effort to do for themselves.
-All Carnegie libraries incorporated several key design features. The library floor plans were all laid out around a central reference or librarians desk to encourage patrons to come ask questions and get help finding materials. The buildings were built in a variety of architectural styles, but all of them included a flight of steps up to an arched front door. The entrance to the library almost always included a lamp or a lantern to symbolize enlightenment and the light of knowledge.
-The vast majority of Carnegie libraries are still in use as public libraries! While some have been converted into museums or town meeting halls, there are many, many more that still see daily use in their originally intended capacity. San Francisco's seven Carnegie libraries are all still active branches, and Oakland's four Carnegie libraries are still open to the public. Of the thirty-nine Carnegie libraries that were built in New York City, thirty-one of them still offer local library service.

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