Andrew Carnegie and Dewey Decimal
The library where we and our classmates wrote our term papers and checked out books after the Saturday matinee still stands. It’s been repurposed and is now the Cultural Arts Center, refitted as an art gallery, exhibition hall and classrooms. The town has a new sprawling brick library. It’s carpeted, has copy and FAX machines, computers and wi-fi working space, head phones, computer games and children’s play area. Our old one was built of pink granite boulders, as many older buildings in our town were. A circular stairs that looked straight down, a mosaic skylight that highlighted the dust motes, and four Grecian columns adorned the entrance room. The wooden floors were polished with wear. Solid oak tables, uncomfortable chairs, and hundreds of little drawers with the dewey decimal card catalogues, and lots of encyclopediae filled the work area. It smelled like wood, varnish, books, dust and must.
Ours was a Carnegie Library. There were 1,689 Carnegie Libraries in the U. S. built between 1883 and 1929, with money from Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie believed in “giving to the industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.” Ours was built in 1904.
The libraries were built in several unique styles: beaux arts, Italian renaissance, baroque, classical revival, Spanish colonial, and selected by the community. I don’t know what style ours is. Can anyone who knows such things tell from the photo? Typically the libraries were formal and simple. The doorways were prominent, with stairs, symbolizing a person’s elevation by learning. Outside the buildings a lamppost or lantern was present, symbolic of enlightenment. In many small American cities in the early 20th century the Carnegie library was the most imposing structure in the community.
It was here, at these large oak tables, beside the card catalogues that we cobbled together our term papers and checked out books for our book reports.
I visited both libraries when we were in town last week. We went to the new library to read our email and do business that couldn’t wait. I went to the old library to...well, to visit an old friend. My footsteps echoed and the heavy door shut loudly behind me. I looked up at the skylight and I looked down from the third floor. And I recognized it. Without realizing it, I’ve written about this library in one of my books, Waiting With Elmer. (Not yet published.) No wonder I saw it so clearly and wrote it so easily!
I’m so glad the old library has a new life and didn’t end up a pile of rubble under a wrecking ball. It’s a treasure.