Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 and grew up poor in Scotland. When he was 12 years old his father moved the family to Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, where young Andy got a job as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. He wanted to educate himself but he couldn't pay the $2 subscription for a local library, and he certainly couldn’t afford to buy books. When he was 17 he sent a letter to the library administrator asking for permission to use the library, and when he was refused he sent his letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch, which published his letter, and sure enough the library was then opened to working men as well as apprentices.
Above: Lillian Marrero Library in 1906
Fast-forward to 1901, when Carnegie – having made good on his effort to educate himself and improve his life – sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for almost half a billion dollars and became the world’s richest man.
But Carnegie believed that the rich should give so that the poor could improve their own lives and society, so he gave most of his wealth away: a total of $350 million, nearly 90 percent of his fortune – including $40 million to construct 1,689 free public libraries across the United States. Thanks to this effort, public libraries became instruments of change, critical assets as important to their communities as emergency services and public schools.
On right: A letter from Andrew Carnegie to John Thomson congratulating him on securing the site of the Central Library (from November 3, 1910)
Carnegie’s second largest library grant - $1.5 million - went to Philadelphia in 1903, and the City used the money to build 25 libraries between 1905 and 1930. Nineteen of these remain in operation as libraries and represent the largest and most cohesive collection of Carnegie libraries in the world. According to a 2009 article from CRM Journal published by the National Park Service, the Carnegie building program in Philadelphia was significant in the development of the Carnegie library building type: the libraries have a T-shaped open plan, raised windows allowing for maximum book storage, flexible space for lectures and other public programs, and open stacks allowing patrons to browse and select their own books, which was uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century.
Above: Falls of Schuylkill Neighborhood Library
All of these features placed the Free Library’s Carnegie libraries on the forefront of library design. Furthermore, the design and construction of each Carnegie library was a community effort, making the library a place for the general public, in contrast to the subscription libraries of the early 1900s. Carrying on that heritage, today Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are heavily reliant on their libraries as places of safety, education, entertainment, technology, and community gathering.
Above: Haddington Neighborhood Library in 1940
Unfortunately, many Carnegie libraries are now in need of repair and renovations. As the buildings have aged, some have people supported plans to demolish them and construct new buildings rather than renovate or reuse them. But these stately neighborhood landmarks hold an important place not only in the history of public libraries but also in the history of their communities, and preservation has been proven to be a viable alternative.
Above: Kingsessing Neighborhood Library in 1940
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has been instrumental in the effort to conserve our libraries in nominating the buildings for addition to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, a comprehensive, dynamic inventory of buildings, structures, sites, objects, interiors, and districts that the Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated as historic. In April 2015, the Preservation Alliance announced that successful nominations had been submitted for three more of Philadelphia’s Carnegie libraries: Walnut Street West at 40th and Walnut Streets; Chestnut Hill at 8711 Germantown Avenue; and Lillian Marrero at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue. Of the 19 remaining Carnegie branch libraries in the City, roughly half are now listed on the local register; the aforementioned, plus Holmesburg, Kingsessing, Thomas F. Donatucci, Sr., Logan, Haddington, Paschalville, and Falls of Schuylkill. This means that their historic significance will be recognized and the buildings will be protected for future generations. The Preservation Alliance has expressed commitment to moving forward with nominations of the other Carnegie libraries in Philadelphia.