Carnegie Libraries

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Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a Scottish American industrialist who became one of the wealthiest men ever, through his dominance of the steel industry. Born impoverished in Dunfermline, Scotland, he migrated with his family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1848. Through hard work, determination and investments in railway-related industries, especially iron and steel, he began accumulating a fortune. When he founded the Carnegie Steel Company it quickly became the largest iron and steel corporation in the world.

When Carnegie retired at the age of 66 in 1901, he sold his businesses off and proceeded to give away over 95% of his wealth through various philanthropic causes, including universities, promoting peace, science and learning. When the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegiei1 was named after him, he donated plaster casts of it to museums all around the world, including The Natural History Museum in London, where it still greets visitors today. He funded Carnegie Halls in New York and elsewhere, but it is perhaps by founding over 2,500 libraries across the world that his influence is best remembered.

The Carnegie Libraries

A total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide. Most, though not all, were in English-speaking countries, although these were free to include books in other languages in their catalogue. The libraries he built included:

  • Australia and Tasmania - 4
  • Belgium - 1
  • Canada - 125
  • Fiji - 1
  • France - 1
  • Mauritius - 1
  • New Zealand - 18
  • Serbia - 1
  • South Africa - 12
  • Seychelles - 1
  • United Kingdom and Ireland - 660
  • United States of America - 1,681
  • West Indies - 5

The 'Carnegie Formula' for funding libraries was a four-point one. The applicant was to:

  • Demonstrate the need for a public library;
  • Provide the building site;
  • Annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library's construction to support its operation; and
  • Provide free service to all.

Carnegie assigned the decisions to his assistant James Bertram, who created a 'Schedule of Questions'. The schedule included:

  • Name, status and population of town,
  • Does the town already have a library?
  • If so, where is this located and is it public or private?
  • How many books will the proposed library have?
  • Is a town-owned site available?

By the time Carnegie died, he had founded over half the free libraries in both the United States and United Kingdom.

Library Layouts

Carnegie Libraries often had steps to the front door, as well as having two separate wings, one for adults and one for children, with the librarian desk between them near the entrance/exit. Outside the library was often a prominent lantern, symbolising enlightenment, while the journey up the steps symbolised that those entering within were elevating themselves through education. Most Carnegie libraries adopted a new 'open stack' system which allowed the visitor to browse the books and choose which books they themselves wished to borrow, rather than requesting a book from the duty librarians. This symbolised open access to knowledge for all. The very earliest Carnegie libraries had been opened under the traditional 'closed stack' model.

Peace Libraries

Among the Carnegie libraries, three were founded by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace in three worst-affected cities by the Great War. This was to help promote a greater understanding of differing viewpoints and generally help make people aware enough to prevent such a war from occurring again (rather than help people design bigger and even deadlier weapons). The cities were Leuven in Belgium, Reims in France and Belgrade in Serbia.

Descriptions of some of the Libraries

Please note that this is a collaborative entry offering first-hand experience of Carnegie Libraries in various places and as a result is not intended to be comprehensive. Many h2g2 Researchers have shared their personal experiences and recollections of visiting Carnegie Libraries.


New Zealand

Though he never visited New Zealand, Andrew Carnegie left a lasting impression. He was responsible for funding 18 library buildings in New Zealand. After his death in 1919 the Carnegie Corporation continued to contribute to the development of New Zealand's library service, most notably in the 1930s and 40s.

25 applications for libraries were entered for New Zealand and seven were turned down2. The reason for at least one of them was that it was suggested that the town come up with 'less elaborate plans' - a suitable building should be able to be erected for 'just half the sum' they had requested.

Dunedin, known as the Edinburgh of the South, attracted the largest individual grant (£10,000 / about US $16,000 at 2012 rates). Twelve of the buildings remain and there are two of them still operating as libraries - Balclutha and Marton. It may be of interest to note that the two in New Zealand remaining as libraries make up some 11% of the originals, compared with the equivalent 3.5% of those in the USA.

Relative costs are not easy to assess but if we note that a more modest grant than Dunedin's was for Thames at £2,000 in 1905. Known as the gateway to the Coromandel and built on gold prospecting. It's now 'The Treasury' and they're trying to build a 'Coromandel Heritage Trust Archive' next to it, a repository for the history of the Coromandel. The plans for the proposed Archive have included a statement that it 'would not impinge on the integrity of the Carnegie Building.' It was the third last remaining Carnegie Library in New Zealand when it closed its doors in 1990.



There is one in Belgium, in Leuven. It is a university library and not open to curious strangers. It replaces the previous one which was severely damaged in the Great War.


The only Carnegie Library in France is the one in Reims. They give guided tours every September for Heritage Open Days.


The Carnegie Libraries had an interesting history in Ireland. There were objections to bringing foreign thoughts into the country. (Locals protested that they didn't want a library, and dangerous foreign books.) There's an interesting section on their history in the book The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian.


In Dundrum, Dublin, the Carnegie Library was taken over by the Dublin County Library which looks after all the libraries in the county outside of the city. The building is two storeys, with adult books downstairs, children's and reference upstairs. It is an elegant building although built out of the grey concrete of the 1930s, and has a nice elliptical window over the door. There are plans to move the library out of the building and to make it into a Garda (Police) Station, but these plans have been put on hold because of the recession.

The other Carnegie Libraries include a much smaller affair at Lamb's Cross. It has now become a community centre, and they built a much bigger glass construction onto the side of the old library building. There is also a very grand building in Rathmines, and smaller gems in Pembroke and Clondalkin..

The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian

The book The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian by Pat Walsh is about a true incident which almost brought down the Irish government, revolves around a Carnegie Library in Mayo. The book includes a few interesting titbits about how Carnegie's scheme worked. This fascinating book was later dramatised for television.

Following the government appointment of Protestant Trinity College graduate Miss Leititia Dunbar Harrison to the post of Mayo County Librarian, local priests and politicians attempted to have her removed. The affair escalated into a political crisis over the power of local versus national government, in the course of which Mayo County Council was actually disbanded.


The library in Belgrade, Serbia was founded after the Great War by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

United Kingdom

The first library that Carnegie opened was in his hometown of Dunfermline in 1883. This bears the appropriate motto, Let there be light.


Neston is the last remaining Carnegie library in Cheshire. The building which used to house the Carnegie Library in Ellesmere Port is no longer a library but a historical building, plaque and everything, so kept as is. Tiny for a library, it has an imposing architectural style that seems a little out of place for its size. It is currently the office of a local Estate Agent.

There weren't many steps to the front door of Neston Library, but there was at least one (which is now ramped) and the door is distinctive. The entrance used to be on a different side of the building, and the distinctive door wasn't used. The Children's Library was in a different wing to the Adult's section, and it was also down several steps. After the refurbishments in the early 21st Century, the library was somehow changed to be all on one level and so fully wheelchair accessible, and the main door was brought back into use.


There is one in Fratton in Portsmouth, still officially known as Carnegie Library today. The beautiful building is still there, still going despite council budgets cuts.

Isle of Wight

Sandown, Isle of Wight has a Carnegie Library, emblazoned with the motto Time and Tide Wait for No Man above the front door, accessed by a short flight of steps. Karl Marx used to visit regularly. It used to house the free Museum of Isle of Wight Geology3, commonly called the Dinosaur Museum, on the first floor, until Dinosaur Isle was constructed in nearby Yaverland and the displays relocated. The Isle of Wight Council have often wished to close Sandown Library but dare not. Although the Isle of Wight Council owns the freehold of Sandown Library, this is as the
beneficiary of a restrictive covenant. Should the library close, the council could lose the legal ownership of the building. The library is currently open part-time.

Growing up on the Island, the libraries were exciting places. Sandown's Carnegie Library also had the Dinosaur Museum. Cowes Library, on the same road as my Granddad's house, hosted the Maritime Museum. The Lord Louis Mountbatten Library in Newport had a gallery, history museum and the back room was where the Vectis Astronomical Society met each month.

Middlesex and London

Brentford, Middlesex, has a Carnegie Museum that was actually opened by Carnegie himself, and was the town's second public library. In 1887 the Government had passed a Libraries Act which permitted Local Authorities to pay for the creation of local libraries by imposing a penny in the pound on the local rates. Brentford town council agreed to build a free library and in 1889 advertised for a librarian.

Out of 50 applicants, Fred Turner from Wolverhampton was employed, starting pay £1 10s 9d per week. Such was his enthusiasm for his job he started amassing books from various establishments and local people. He also provided newspapers, and held lectures for the local people, who were mainly employed on the canals, gas works, brewery, tannery and soap works. The library was so popular that by the turn of the century a new library building was required.

Fred Turner contacted Andrew Carnegie, who provided £5,000 towards the new library. The foundation stone was laid by the Countess of Jersey, who lived locally in Osterley, on a wet and miserable day in September 1903, with the library officially opened on 9 May 1904, with Andrew Carnegie in attendance. He was so impressed that he gave Fred Turner a further £400 to equip the library further.

Another Carnegie Library is Lambeth Library, Herne Hill.


The city of Stoke-on-Trent was formed out of six adjoining towns in the area known as the Potteries, after the dominant local industry. Out of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent, Fenton was initially the only one without a library, until Carnegie's bequest. The library opened in 1907. Unfortunately Fenton Library closed in 2011 due to budget cuts, after more than 100 years. The building is still standing.

West Midlands

Northfield Library was opened in 1906 on land was provided by the Cadbury family (Bourneville is just a stone's throw away). However, the original library was burnt down on 12 February, 1914, supposedly by suffragettes. It's circumstantial evidence, but a paper found on the railings to the rear of the library which said Give Women the Vote, and there was also a brown paper parcel on which was written, To start your new library. Within it was a book by Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of the famous Emily. The façade was still standing, and the library was re-built behind it by the Free Libraries Committee. It re-opened later in the year, and it was then the first open-access lending library in Birmingham.

North America


The Carnegie libraries in Canada were opened in the following provinces:

  • Ontario - 111
  • Manitoba - 4
  • Alberta - 3
  • British Columbia - 3
  • Saskatchewan - 2
  • New Brunswick - 1
  • Yukon - 1

British Columbia - Vancouver

Now mostly a drop-in centre, the Library is still there. Sadly it is right in the middle of what is referred to as the poorest postal code in North America, the Downtown Eastside. It's the oldest part of the old town facing the Fraser River and the harbour where originally the town grew up around a skid road - a mud and greased-lumber track like a boat launching ramp - which was used to roll timber into the river or haul heavy goods ashore. As this skid technology was superseded by proper wharfs and cranes the original area was allowed to fall into disuse and the nearby housing became run-down and attracted a poorer class of people. These areas became known as Skid Rows and that term was adopted in most cities where depressed and abandoned properties attracted a similar demographic. People who were going bankrupt especially as result of alcoholism or drug addiction were said to be 'on the skids'.

But when the TransContinental Railway was completed the Vancouver Terminus was located right downtown in the still then fashionable Eastside. The whole area around the local Carnegie Library / Drop in centre is depressed, run down and generally a haven for drunks and addicts. Just a block or two away Chinatown and the rest of the DES is now being occupied by artists and students, that being the lowest rent in the city.

As to the library, it is spotlessly clean and mostly inhabited by people who want a free coffee and can read.

United States of America


The monumental Carnegie Library in Birmingham has been incorporated by skybridge to a new library nearby.

Selma, Alabama, had a Carnegie Library. It's beautifully preserved and used as the Chamber of Commerce now.


Of those built in USA, 142 public and 2 academic Carnegie libraries were built in the state of California. Quite a few California Carnegie libraries were built in frontier areas. Only 85 of the original Carnegie public library buildings still exist, only 36 are still operating as libraries. 21 are museums, 13 are used for community services and the other 15 have a variety of uses. The two academic Carnegies are still used by their colleges, but now as classrooms and offices.

Eureka has a Carnegie library that is said to be haunted. An immigrant worker fell from the balcony during construction of the Eureka Carnegie library in 1903. His ghost has never left the building, now the Morris Graves Museum of Art.

There was one in Ukiah. Ukiah eventually outgrew its Carnegie library, which was used until the new library was built in 1972. It is no longer a library but a historical building, plaque and everything, so kept as is. Tiny for a library, it has an imposing architectural style that seems a little out of place for its size. Currently the office of a local realtor.

Just 2 years after it was built, Santa Rosa's Carnegie library was badly damaged in the 1906 earthquake. The library was repaired and returned to service. In 1960 the building was condemned as unsafe and eventually demolished.

Sacramento library building was very finely decorated , with an exquisitely carved pillared entrance. One Researcher commented,

As a young nerd growing up in Sacramento, I spent many an hour at the Carnegie library there. Nice science fiction section.


Mirror Lake Library was the first library in St Petersburg, Florida. It is still in operation.


Massachusetts has 43 public libraries that were built from 35 grants by the Carnegie Foundation between 1901 and 1917. Some towns have more than one such building. Worcester, for instance, has three Carnegie branch libraries. In Springfield, the main library and three branch libraries are Carnegie libraries.

The other towns with Carnegie libraries are:

  1. Ashland
  2. Athol
  3. Berkley
  4. Brockton
  5. Chelsea
  6. Clinton
  7. Dighton
  8. Edgartown
  9. Granby
  10. Holliston
  11. Hudson
  12. Lakeville
  13. Lee
  14. Leominster
  15. Lynn (2)
  16. Marlborough (which sadly burned down in the 1960s)
  17. Melrose
  18. Millbury
  19. Needham
  20. New Marlborough
  21. Revere
  22. Rockland
  23. Rockport
  24. Saugus
  25. Sharon
  26. Somerville (3 branch libraries)
  27. South Hadley
  28. Springfield (4)
  29. Stoneham
  30. Taunton
  31. Turners Falls
  32. Walpole
  33. Springfield (3)
  34. Worcester (3)

In addition, there are Carnegie library buildings at the following five colleges:

  1. Mount Holyoke
  2. Radcliffe
  3. Smith
  4. Tufts
  5. Wellesley

The one on Needham, Massachusetts has the trademark steps leading to the front door. The interior has been redesigned, though. A few years ago, a massive building and rebuilding project added a large addition to the original library. It's very lovely now, with performance spaces and possibly gallery space.


One fascinating aspect of the Pittsburgh library is its closed stack, the original way that libraries were operated. To get a book you would need to fill out a request slip and put it in a little box on the librarian's desk, and then sit down and wait. The librarian would pick up your slip, inspect it, then push a button. In a few minutes, a library worker would come out and pick up the slip, disappear into the back, and return with your book. You had to watch all this and go up to claim your book from the desk, silently. The whole place had a sort of steampunk quality. A Researcher said,

I grew up in Pittsburgh, so our Carnegie Library was the one in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, near the University of Pittsburgh and at the time, across the way from Forbes Field, a famous baseball stadium. It's a grand old building. I used to get to go there on weekends with a friend's mother, whose hobby was trying to prove that she was descended from a knight in William the Conqueror's retinue. The genealogy section was a cool place. I saw my first photocopy device there.

The shady parking area was between the library and Forbes Field. Once, my dad took us to a ball game. The attendant told him there was a charge to park there for the game. 'But we're going to the library,' my dad joked. 'Oh, library patrons don't have to pay.' My dad, chagrined, apologised and paid up.

Final Thoughts

Without the ability to read where would the internet and h2g2 be? It is easy to make fun of teachers and librarians but even that old so-and-so Andrew Carnegie autodidact and robber baron appreciated that a well educated work force would be better for the bottom line of hyena capitalism!

Perhaps Carnegie would be astounded at modern libraries and rather pleased to see his legacy still in use. Libraries aren't just empty buildings containing books - they can be at the heart of a community.

1Also known as Diplodocus carnegii.2The 18 Carnegie Libraries that were built in New Zealand were Alexandra, Balclutha, Cambridge, Dannevirke, Dunedin, Fairlie, Gore, Greymouth, Hamilton, Hastings, Hokitika, Levin, Marton, Onehunga, New Plymouth, Thames, Timaru and Westport.3Father of Geology and inventor of the modern seismograph, Professor John Milne lived on the Isle of Wight 1895-1913.

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