Arroyo Seco Library


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 basis.

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 clubs.

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.

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