"How do WE get a Carnegie Library?"
That question resonated in towns and cities throughout America in the early 1900's. Many soon found that a request for a Carnegie grant was as simple as writing a letter to Andrew Carnegie, New York, New York.
The program hadn't begun that way. The recipients of the earliest Carnegie libraries didn't ask -- the libraries were bestowed upon them unsolicited. Carnegie's gifts to his native town in Scotland and to several Pennsylvania towns were planned, built, endowed and dedicated by him between the years 1881 and 1896.
But in many communities the need for a library building, a place to house local book collections, was very real. Typically individuals, women's clubs, and lodges started small libraries, mostly requiring membership or fee. Seldom did these libraries have a permanent building. Even when they became free public libraries supported by taxes, funds were not sufficient to provide a building. Often libraries were housed in donated or rented second floor offices, or a remote corner of the city hall, or a room over the fire station.
Carnegie soon began to receive many requests for library buildings from community leaders or acquaintances and he often responded with a generous gift. As the inquiries increased in number, however, the replies more frequently came from James Bertram, Carnegie's private secretary . Bertram devised a questionnaire designed to elicit information about the town's population, its existing library if any, and its finances. The questionnaire carried a clear implication that the response should come from a city official and subsequent correspondence was usually carried on at that level. Upon the receipt of an adequately prepared questionnaire, an offer would be made, based on population and accompanied by the stipulation that the city must provide the site for the library and commit itself to an annual amount equal to ten percent of the grant for maintenance of the library.
Over time there were changes in the process. Bertram required that the city pass a resolution to verify that the land acquisition had been completed and that the tax had been voted. After 1907 he required that all building plans be submitted for approval. In 1911, after consultation with library and architectural leaders, he devised and sent to all applicants "Notes on the Erection of Library Bildings" (an example of the simplified spelling favored by Carnegie.) The "Notes" offered six library floor plans designed to fit variously shaped lots "to obtain for the money the utmost amount of effective accommodation, consistent with good taste in bilding." However, following the plans was not mandatory. Bertram did insist on a large well-lighted reading area with high windows to leave wall space for shelving. Fireplaces were discouraged because they took too much room and were more expensive than a basement heater. Other than preferring one story and basement as most practical, neither the exterior of the building nor its architectural style was specified, nor were communities asked to use the name "Carnegie" on the building.
Later, funds were provided incrementally, with certification of completed work required before Bertram approved release of funds by the treasurer of the Carnegie Corporation. Also, cities were required to indicate by resolution, prior to release of any funds, their understanding that the grant was to cover the completed building ready to function as a library.
Additional money was sometimes sought and granted for reconstruction after disasters such as earthquakes; less frequently granted for library expansion. As the libraries aged, cities began to ask about their rights in regard to building alteration or disposal, or appropriate future building use. At first the response was that the building had been given for a library and any other use would be considered a breach of faith. Later, communities were told that the building was theirs to use, sell, or destroy, but that it was the custom to affix a plaque to a replacement library building identifying its Carnegie history.
The Carnegie Correspondence, containing all inquiries, questionnaires, and subsequent debates, with a testy Bertram and a recalcitrant city hammering out their differences, is available on microfilm. Unfortunately the original correspondence was destroyed. Though difficult to read, the microfilm of the fragile old letters, and of the thin carbon copies of Bertram's replies, provides unique insight into the social history of American communities in the first quarter of the twentieth century.