Carnegie Library Architecture
by Dr. Abigail A. Van Slyck
Carnegie libraries--public libraries built between 1886 and 1917 with funds
provided either by Andrew Carnegie personally or by the Carnegie Corporation of
New York (the foundation he established in 1911)--are among the most numerous
public buildings in the United States. They are also as familiar as old friends.
With classical colonnades supporting triangular pediments and surmounted by
domes, they present a face that is immediately recognizable. Symmetrical
buildings cloaked in a variety of classical styles, their dress is both
conventional and easily anticipated. Located in public parks, their behavior is
neither threatening nor eccentric. We expect neither drama nor excitement from
them, and find it comforting when they meet our expectations.
Yet, this familiarity can often blind us to the fact that in their day Carnegie
libraries were innovative designs that helped revolutionize the small public
library as a building type. Efficiency was the operative word, both for
Carnegie and for the professional librarians who advised him, and their goal was
to allow a single librarian to supervise the entire library. Thus, the Carnegie
program recommended a one-story building without full-height interior partitions,
an arrangement which gave the librarian seated at the centrally-located charging
desk an unencumbered view of the bookshelves lining the perimeter walls.
Carnegie did allow for substantial basements, but these housed only subsidiary
functions: a public meeting room, a staff room, toilets, and a furnace room.
Responsibility for implementing these design innovations fell to James Bertram,
Andrew Carnegie's personal secretary and later secretary of the Carnegie
Corporation of New York. From 1903 until 1911, Bertram reviewed every set of
plans for a Carnegie-financed library building, and offered lengthy--and often
quite pointed--criticism to the architect involved. In 1911, however, Bertram
enhanced his own efficiency by codifying his advice on library planning into a
pamphlet entitled "Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings." This pamphlet
included both written advice and schematic plans, and was sent to municipal
authorities along with notification that they had received a Carnegie grant.
Conspicuously lacking in these "Notes" is any mention of architectural style.
The pamphlet's single paragraph on the design of library exteriors acknowledged
the need for "the community and architect [to] express their individuality," but
immediately warned against "aiming at such exterior effects as may make
impossible an effective and economical layout of the interior." Architecture,
Bertram implied, was apt to get in the way of effective library planning and
could be avoided completely with no ill effects. Thus, the family resemblance
shared by so many classically-detailed Carnegie library buildings was the result
of hundreds of individual design decisions, and not an image imposed upon
American communities by Carnegie or his representative.
Despite these strong opinions about library design, the Carnegie program never
issued complete architectural drawings, nor recommended a particular architect;
municipal authorities in each town were required to hire their own architect.
Yet, the Carnegie program did encourage the practice of architectural
specialization. Indeed, as Bertram's reputation as an exacting critic became
widespread, architectural firms that could claim expertise in the design of
Carnegie libraries became extremely attractive to towns with Carnegie grants.
Although there are countless examples of local architects who designed these
libraries, Carnegie commissions were increasingly consolidated into the hands of
a relatively small number of firms that gained at least regional prominence in
this particular branch of design: W. H. Weeks in California; Edward L. Tilton in
the Northeast; Clifford Shopbell and Wilson B. Parker, both in Indiana; and
Patton & Miller in the Midwest.
If the architectural forms advocated by the Carnegie Corporation were intended to
improve library efficiency, they also suggested fundamental changes in the
library experience. The small-town librarian (by 1911, more likely to be a woman
than a man) found herself in a somewhat ambiguous position. The open plan offered
her a spatial situation comparable to that of the manager of a factory or an
office building. From her post at the charging desk, the librarian was at the
center of library activities. Not only could she survey the entire building, but
she herself was always in view as well. In their basement meeting room, the
library board maintained a central role in establishing library policy, but the
librarian upstairs personified the institution for most library users on a daily
Despite the librarian's rise in status relative to the library trustees, these
gains were undercut by other aspects of Carnegie's ideal plans. The basement
location of the staff room, for instance, suggests that the library staff had
dropped lower in the library hierarchy both physically and symbolically, a
demotion that was reinforced by the multipurpose nature of the staff room.
Instead of reigning over an inviolate inner sanctum of their own, members of the
library staff had to share their room with both the trustees and members of local
For library patrons, male and female, young and old, the new library offered a
pleasant surprise. From the outside, the emphasis on symmetry helped identify
the building as a public one; readers could enter freely, safe in the knowledge
that they were welcome. Inside, the architectural experience had been evened
out. Ceilings were of a uniform height, and rectangular rooms were evenly lit
from windows that started six feet from the floor. Although less dramatic than
the monumental spaces of 19th-century libraries, these rooms were also less
intimidating. More important, readers were allowed to fetch their own books
directly from the shelves lining the walls which surrounded them. They
had--finally--been accepted into a relationship of trust with the powers that be.
For women and children, the new library offered unfamiliar freedom. Women were
no longer segregated into ladies' reading rooms, as they had been in the 19th
century. Whereas earlier libraries had been exclusively adult affairs with
separate reading rooms for male and female readers, only the smallest Carnegie
library failed to provide a special reading room for the use of children. Young
readers found in the children's reading room a portion of the public landscape
that catered directly to their needs.
In short, Carnegie libraries are more than they seem from the sidewalk. At one
level, they take us on welcome journeys into the past. They are familiar,
conventional, and appealing buildings that have inspired several ambitious
preservation projects aimed at renewing their original architectural character.
Yet, at another level, they open unexpected vistas into the future. Rather than
simply meeting our expectations, they also challenge us--to redefine the role of
reading in our culture, to reinvigorate social interaction in public spaces, to
reinvent the public library as an American institution.
Click below for more information on how Carnegie Libraries have expanded in the past
to meet their needs, and what changes the future may bring, by Lucy Kortum.