They are the libraries that Andrew built. In the early 20th century, Andrew Carnegie funded the establishment of public libraries across the United States in an effort to bring the joy of reading and learning — free of charge — to the masses.
To Hoosiers’ great benefit, Indiana received more Carnegie grants than any other state, $2.6 million in all, enough to build 164 libraries in 155 cities and towns from 1901 to 1922.
Drive through just about any community and you’ll see one. Although there’s uniformity in their footprint, there’s variety, too — in architectural style, building material and personality. For example:
The Wabash Carnegie Public Library was designed by Fort Wayne architect J.F. Wing and dedicated in 1903. It was constructed of Bedford limestone in neo-classical revival style with a stained glass dome.
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The Whiting Public Library, opened in 1906, was designed by Bloomington, Illinois, architect Paul O. Moratz in eclectic Romanesque Revival style.
The Brownsburg library, made of brick in the Craftsman-Prairie style popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, was designed by Indianapolis architect Norman H. Hill and dedicated in 1918.
Carnegie himself never explained why Indiana received so much of his largesse. David Kaser, distinguished professor emeritus, Indiana University School of Library and Information Science, suspects it was a matter of timing and greatest good. By the time Carnegie launched his program, the eastern states were well stocked with libraries and had less need. The South and West weren’t organized to take full advantage.
Indiana, Kaser says, had financial need and was receptive to the benefits with its “bookish culture, widespread literacy … and sufficient experience with rental and social libraries to assure the extensive future use of free public libraries when they should become available.”
In “Temples of Knowledge: Andrew Carnegie’s Gift to Indiana,” author Alan McPherson notes that Hoosiers were voracious readers in the early 20th century, yet “Indiana’s publicly funded township and country libraries were rather limited in literary selection, poorly housed and often meagerly staffed.”
Some were “subscription” libraries, which meant patrons had to pay a monthly or annual fee to borrow books.
Carnegie, a self-made steel tycoon, wanted libraries that were free to all. To obtain funding from him, communities had to agree to provide a building site and levy a tax to maintain the building and its collection into the future. To leverage Carnegie’s generosity, the General Assembly in 1901 passed the Mummert Library Law, which allowed local units of government to do just that.
At the outset, communities could design the libraries as they pleased; after 1908, the Carnegie Corp. issued guidelines that standardized their cost and appearance. Steps typically led to the front door, a symbolic representation of Carnegie’s philosophy that patrons should step up intellectually to get the most from the library experience.
Today, 106 of the 164 libraries Carnegie funded are still functioning libraries, many of them remodeled or expanded to accommodate customer demand and new technology. That fact would surely delight Carnegie, who called the taste for reading “one of the most precious possessions of life.”
Eighteen were demolished by human hands or natural disaster. The others have been adapted to new uses, including as museums, town halls, private homes, galleries and even restaurants.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.