California Carnegie Libraries
at the end of the twentieth century
Whether remaining in library use or serving in other functions, many California Carnegies have expanded and many of those are again short of space. A 1985 California conference for librarians, on the planning of both new buildings and renovations, included several workshops on preplanning and working with architects. The most emphasized renovation problem was space and the expense of achieving it, to accommodate more books, more users, more services, more technical equipment, and usually more than one librarian. Closely related is the serious problem of providing for modern electrical needs.
Vacancy always poses a potential threat to the future of a building. Among publicly owned Carnegies, shaky municipal budgets may delay projected plans for future use but commitment is a potent force in their favor. Several privately owned Carnegies have had recent occupancy problems but the quality of construction, careful renovation, and current interest in historical buildings has worked in their favor.
All extant Carnegies are on their original sites -- only Hollywood, since demolished, was relocated -- and site is an important factor in the future of individual Carnegies. With the exception of the branches, most Carnegies were located proximate to downtown. These buildings are now in or adjacent to "old downtown." Among the many examples of Carnegies located in towns which have been able to retain a viable downtown, or where an active preservation movement is restoring the downtown, are San Rafael, San Luis Obispo, Petaluma, Pacific Grove, and Santa Barbara. Some Carnegies that were located in residential areas and parks, such as Clovis, Turlock and Exeter, have been converted to community use.
Old downtown or neighborhood change can also create challenges for the Carnegies. The extant Santa Cruz and Los Angeles branches and several of the San Francisco and Oakland branches are in neighborhoods that have changed demographically. In Vacaville and Richmond the Carnegies may provide an anchor for neighborhood stabilization. San Jose/East San Jose, Oakland/Melrose , and Los Angeles/Lincoln Heights meet the needs of their new constituencies with outreach programs and books in many languages.
Several libraries have recently completed renovation and restoration, often incorporating expansion. In Sacramento, a full block "Library Plaza" contains the restored Carnegie, a new library alongside the old, with a connecting element, a galleria, an office building, and a parking structure with retail space. The Lodi library, earlier expanded, has been restored as part of the civic plaza, with unifying walkways. Dixon has recently added a new wing, and the three Los Angeles branches are being renovated and expanded in varying degrees. Some of these renovations were originally necessitated by earthquake damage and the restored buildings meet current safety codes.
The threat of earthquake is a recognized reality for California Carnegies. All of the California Carnegies were constructed before the 1933 Long Beach earthquake which led to establishment of construction standards for buildings in or near fault zones. Earthquake safety is probably the prime reason given for demolishing Carnegies, although economics and convenience could have been the actual motivators.
After the Loma Prieta quake, cities in certain zones were required to evaluate all of their pre-1934 unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings and devise a timetable for their repair. At about the same time, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed requiring another form of evaluation with possible structural remedy required.
The 1994 Northridge earthquake focused attention on even more serious problems facing all buildings, new and old, when scientific analysis indicated that seismic energy dispersed in ways not previously suspected. Engineers are questioning building failures by steel frame structures built to the highest earthquake resistant standards . Legislation regarding retrofitting of public buildings, and private buildings when there is a use change, can be expected to become more stringent, posing more difficulty for both public and private owners.
The reluctance of voters to fund public expenditure, reinforced by passage of recent statewide initiatives, is a major threat facing the extant Carnegie buildings. Over 88 percent of the Carnegies are in public ownership, 48 percent as libraries and all but a handful of the rest providing space for educational, cultural, or civic activities; they must annually justify themselves in competition with other government services. Needed seismic retrofitting and ADA accommodations are planned but in many cases implementation has been put on hold. Libraries are challenged to serve their public, augment their collections of increasingly expensive books, help children and young people supplement their educational and recreational opportunities, provide services to readers, researchers and job hunters, and at the same time move into the complicated electronic adaptations of the new computer internets. Lack of funding is the most frequently mentioned factor in keeping the libraries and museums in their old buildings rather than construct new buildings more spacious or better adapted to their functions. Thus the Carnegies are both endangered by, and kept in community use by, the budget limitations of their communities. Today, as they did in their early history, libraries rely heavily on volunteer commitment for survival, and those volunteers may be campaigning in behalf of a building to house their services.