Carnegie free libraries

Writing about the Mechanics’ Institute libraries (see below) reminded me that I’ve also come across a Carnegie Library or two.

The Carnegie Library in Port Townsend, Washington state, USA, built in about 1913. The building and its 1990 annexe were refurbished in 2014. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the richest man of his age, built his first free library in 1883 in Scotland, the land of his birth and, as his fortune multiplied, decided to share the love by donating libraries that were – unlike the Mechanics’ Institute versions – entirely free. No annual subscriptions, no borrowing fees. Under Carnegie’s terms all persons over 14 years of age residing in the borough should be able to take out one book free per week, with those paying a subscription able to borrow a further two books.

In total he and the Carnegie Corporation were responsible for 2509 libraries in the United States, Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, the Caribbean, Fiji and New Zealand (which ended up with 18 libraries to Australia’s four).

The Carnegie Library in Suva, Fiji photographed on June 6, 1950 by Whites Aviation Ltd. The library opened in 1909 and is still in use today. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library

Carnegie hadn’t become wealthy by being a fool so there were a few rules and regulations. After some shoddy construction and poor designs came to his attention, he issued standard building plans or required that all local plans and speci­fications be vetted by his staff before construction. Following completion of the building, a council was required to send him photographs showing how his money had been spent and that construction complied with what he had approved.

Still, it was a pretty big gift horse that was, naturally, looked in the mouth by a few …

At least one library in New Zealand, Hastings, was called to account after a local resident wrote to Carnegie complaining about the charges. These appear to have then been dropped, only for the council to be caught again after the library building was destroyed in the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. The council applied to the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which Carnegie had endowed in 1911) for funds to rebuild the library. The Corporation declined, noting the council had not abided by the conditions of the original grant.

The last Carnegie library in New Zealand opened in Marton in 1916 – one of only two original Carnegie libraries in this country that is still in use (the other is in Balclutha). That year Carnegie received a report concluding, after the author had visited 100 Carnegie libraries, that money would be better invested in supporting the training of library personnel, which is what happened from 1917.

Read a NZ Geographic article about Carnegie and his libraries.

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