Carnegie libraries a piece of history and a testament to generosity
Story by Sarah Allen
Most communities hardly seem complete without a library. From the childhood joy of a first library card to the programs and events that keep patrons learning throughout adulthood, libraries have become staples of the cities they serve.
However, this was not always the case. The resources needed to fund a library were not always readily available.
But then there was Andrew Carnegie, the celebrated industrialist and philanthropist who changed all of that. His donations ensured that communities around the world would have access to libraries, and many of those aptly named Carnegie libraries are here in Ohio.
Wilmington Public Library Director Nancy Ehas described Carnegie’s connection to libraries. An immigrant from Scotland, she said, Carnegie did not have money for a formal education. However, he lived near a man, Colonel James Anderson, who opened his personal library every Saturday to the children in Carnegie’s neighborhood. Because of that, Carnegie was inspired to ensure similar opportunities himself if ever he could.
And that is precisely what he did — over and over and over again.
The Wilmington Public Library was opened June 30, 1904. Carnegie donated a total of $12,500 to the project.
And while she said that, with time, fewer people nowadays know about the historical significance of their library, she said that, when they learn of it, they “think it’s wonderful” and are “just amazed” at the generosity of one man.
“In any community, a library provides a place for people to further their education, and the people here seem to really appreciate their library,” Ehas said. “They value it.”
Over 100 Carnegie libraries were ultimately built in Ohio. And while some are no longer used for their original purpose or have since been demolished, there are still many that remain.
The Greenville Public Library is one such place. According to the library’s website, the building’s cornerstone was laid Oct. 30, 1901, and the building was dedicated March 19, 1903. Carnegie furnished $25,000 toward the project, with $3,610 donated by local businessman Henry St. Clair and $7,175 by the Greenville School Board. In all, $35,785 was donated to give the town of Greenville their own library.
Like all modern libraries, Greenville’s is like a “community center,” said director John Vehre.
“We’re not tombs anymore,” Vehre added. “You won’t find many librarians going around shushing people.”
Vehre described the “tremendous” impact Carnegie had on Greenville and other communities.
At the turn of the century, tax structures were “iffy” for libraries, Vehre explained. “(For) a lot of communities, (funds for libraries) were hit or miss.” He said that, often, the money simply would not have been there without Carnegie.
His donations, Vehre added, are even more impressive when compared with changing values. His total worldwide donations, he said, would probably equal about $300 million to $400 million nowadays. Most people, he said, would “probably be surprised that someone would give that much. … Hats off to someone who was willing to share that much to people he didn’t know in any way.”
Portsmouth Public Library Director Paige Williams echoed that sentiment. Carnegie donated $50,000 to the Portsmouth library, which, Williams said, was “one of the largest amounts he’d given up to that time.” Nowadays, she added, that amount would be equivalent to about $1.4 million.
Carnegie was initially contacted by Henry A. Lorberg, a Portsmouth historian and businessman. Local people contributed monetarily also. Construction began in 1903, and the Portsmouth Public Library officially opened Feb. 1, 1906.
Williams said the architecture for each Carnegie library varies. As an example, she said the Portsmouth library has a stained glass dome and ceiling. And, when it was built, it even had a glass roof. However, that was eventually changed to metal.
Just as all libraries have changed with the times, so have the Carnegie ones. They have begun to offer different materials, such as movies and eBooks. And, as the communities around them grew, so did they, with additions and other modifications. They faced challenges from flooding to financial, but, always, the libraries’ core purpose remained: to serve and educate their communities.
“Not only is there pride (for the library) … being a Carnegie library,” Williams said, “but over the door, it says ‘open to all.’ And it really is open to all.”
A sampling of locations where Carnegie libraries are still standing and operating:
Delphos (Allen County)
Greenville (Darke County)
London (Madison County)
Portsmouth (Scioto County)
Rockford (Mercer County)
Washington Court House (Fayette County)
Wilmington (Clinton County)