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Andrew Carnegie: The Patron Saint of Libraries

Just over 100 years ago in 1919, Andrew Carnegie passed away at the age of 84. He had given away nearly 90% of his vast wealth gained during his life, around $350 million, but his work was not finished. For the first 12 years of his life Andrew Carnegie lived in the town of Dunfermline, Scotland. His father was a weaver with a small textile business who also helped create a library for tradesmen in the area. While Carnegie did begin formal schooling at the age of eight he had to end that education because of rapid industrialization that was occurring. It forced people like Carnegie’s father out of business and resulted in children having to get jobs to help support their families as well, these being the days before child labor laws. 

The Carnegie family ended up selling their belongings and moving across the Atlantic to Allegheny, Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. It was there that Carnegie began working in a factory. Just a year later he landed a job as a messenger for a telegraph company and began making connections and learning telegraphy that would help him in years to come. 

At the age of 18, Carnegie began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad where he would stay for 12 years. During his time with the railroad he rose in the ranks to become the superintendent of the Pittsburgh division and began investing in businesses with focuses on railroads, oil, iron, and steel. At the age of 30 Carnegie left the railroad to manage the Keystone Bridge Company whose main focus was replacing wooden bridges with steel ones. He then created his own steel company, Carnegie Steel Company, which he would eventually sell for $250 million in 1901.

Picture of Andrew Carnegie (Theodore C. Marceau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

With all of this disposable income Carnegie decided to invest in the education of those in the country. He was of the belief that wealthy men should not live lives of such extravagance but should provide for their families and then use the rest of their money to benefit the common man. This is what Carnegie ultimately did with his grants for libraries. Growing up without much formal education left Carnegie to learn from those he worked with and from public libraries. It was these institutions that he wanted to continue and expand in the United States. In 1886 Carnegie began what is known as his “retail” period of grant funding for libraries. This lasted for the next ten years and allowed for nearly $2,000,000 to be granted for the construction of 14 libraries in six different communities. 

The next phase of giving, the “wholesale” period, began in the mid-1890s. During this time his generosity totaled over $39,000,000 and extended to 1,406 towns, mostly those in small communities without much access to cultural institutions. Most of the grants given during this period totaled under $10,000 but some cities were able to secure larger amounts – New Albany being one of those recipients, but we’ll get to that later. 

While any English-speaking nation could apply for grants through the Carnegie Foundation, some were wary about accepting money from him because of his reputation as a ruthless businessman, especially after the Homestead Strike at one of his steel plants that resulted in multiple deaths and injuries. Cities also had to allot 10% of their grant total in their budgets each year to continued upkeep of the library, which some people said was too much for the community to take on through taxes. Nevertheless, Carnegie’s grants did help many communities build public libraries.

By 1916 Carnegie had received a report stating that his libraries that were constructed would not be that beneficial if there were not trained professionals running them. As a result further grants given to cities were instead more focused on supporting education with the last Carnegie Library building constructed in 1923 but his legacy continued to grow.

Graduates of the Male and Female High School in New Albany at the corner of Spring and Bank Streets, 1894

Just after the turn of the century, in 1902, the city of New Albany was looking for a permanent residence for its library. From the creation of the public library in the city by the school board in 1884 the library moved between temporary locations on Pearl, Main, and Spring Streets. A grant through the Carnegie Foundation was awarded to the city and construction began on the building at the northeast corner of Spring and Bank Streets in downtown, the former home of the high school. This being the “wholesale” period for the foundation, New Albany was lucky to be awarded $40,000 for the construction and furnishing of the Neoclassical building, four times the average grant for this time period. Construction took two years and was led by architect Arthur Loomis who is also responsible for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, among other buildings. 

Construction of the New Albany Public Library, Photo by George Riddle

While, at least early on, there was no design requirement for Carnegie Libraries, many of the buildings were built with brick. The reason for this was financial. The grants from the Carnegie Foundation covered only the construction of the buildings, not the upkeep. As a result, communities chose to use a more expensive building material, brick, because it had lower upkeep costs. The library in New Albany, thanks to the large grant, was constructed using brick and limestone. The New Albany Library officially opened to the public on March 2, 1904 complete with over 11,000 titles for the community. New Albany residents could get a library card to check out one book for two weeks. An exception was made for teachers who were given the opportunity to check out six books at a time. As with most Carnegie Libraries a large set of stairs, 13 steps in this case, lead to the main level entrance on Spring Street, a feature that some see as the most identifiable feature of a Carnegie Library. When entering the main level one would find a reading room with 30 magazines and 15 daily newspapers to the left in the West Wing, a children’s department with 1,200 volumes of popular kid’s books and magazines to the right in the East Wing, and book stacks with a capacity of over 75,000 volumes straight ahead at the North end of the building. On the basement level was a public hall that could hold 210 chairs for lectures and other educational programs. 

Interior of the New Albany Public Library, 1904

Throughout the first 40 years of the library the librarian, Annette Clark who was elected to the position in 1905, was incredibly active in the community and wanted to ensure that the library was really at the heart of culture in the community. Some examples of programs put on by Ms. Clark include lectures by different local groups, an exhibition of articles about New Albany History for the city’s Centennial Week, and war drives to collect books and money to provide libraries for soldiers during WWI. There were some hard times for the library as well. In 1937 the Ohio River flooded and caused incredible destruction across the downtown area. While the reading rooms in the library were on the main level and unaffected by the waters, books and newspapers held in the basement level were. Water levels of previous floods of the river had not reached as far as the library and when the staff left for the evening the water had not reached the building. As a result, there were no efforts to move the newspapers and books to the main level. However, overnight the water began pouring into the basement. All told, many books and 15 years worth of newspapers were lost to the flood. 

New Albany Public Library during the 1937 Flood

One stipulation of the Carnegie grants was to ensure that it was on a piece of land that could allow for the expansion of the library as needed. In 1952 there was a remodel of the building that added the balcony that now houses staff administrative offices and the children’s reading room was moved to the basement level. By 1956 all residents of Floyd County could use the free resources provided by the institution. The library’s collection continued to grow over the years and by the late 1960s numbered over 140,000 volumes. Our needs in New Albany and Floyd County exceeded what our parcel of land could allow for. As a result, in 1969 the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library moved a few blocks down Spring Street where it still resides today. Two years later a group of community members opened the Floyd County Museum in the former library building to operate as an art and history museum. In 1988 the Floyd County Museum was incorporated into the Floyd County Library system and then was renamed the Carnegie Center for Art and History in 1998 following a renovation of the building. For almost 120 years New Albany has had a permanent location for its free, public library. Hundreds of thousands of volumes of books and numerous programs have benefited the community across the branches, the newest, at Indiana University Southeast, just opening this month. In the words of New Albany resident John S. Mace in 1908, “It has been one of the best investments New Albany ever made.”


By: Hanna Gish

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