12 Impressive Carnegie Libraries Still in Use Today

Building front with "let there be light" in relief against the stone
Photo: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Carnegie, a 19th century industrialist and philanthropist best known as the founder of Carnegie Hall in New York or Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, was fond of libraries, even though he only had three years of formal schooling. As a lad in Scotland, he listened to men read books borrowed from the Tradesmen’s Subscription Library — a library that his father helped create. And as a teen in the United States, he borrowed books from a local colonel who opened his personal library once a week. "Carnegie later said the colonel opened the windows through which the light of knowledge streamed," according to the National Park Service.

Carnegie went on to amass a fortune in the railroad and steel industries, but the Scottish-American businessman gave 90 percent of it away — about $350 million. In 1889, he wrote an essay called "The Gospel of Wealth," where he detailed his philanthropic strategy: "In bestowing charity the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves." He also said, according to the NPS, that wealthy men should live without extravagance, provide moderately for their dependents, and distribute the rest of their riches to benefit the welfare and happiness of the common man.

Though Carnegie donated to a variety of charities, his most famous and lasting contributions were the 2,509 libraries built around the world between 1883 and 1929, in both small towns and big cities, in more than 10 countries. The following is a selection of Carnegie libraries that were of particular significance to him and his legacy.

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Dunfermline Carnegie Library in Scotland

Photo: Paul McIlroy/Creative Commons

The first Carnegie library was located in his birthplace of Dunfermline, Scotland, and opened in August 1883. Designed by Edinburgh architect James Campbell Walker, Carnegie reportedly donated about $10,400 to build and stock the library. Though it was a success, the space was soon declared to be too small, and an extension began in 1904 to double the size of the original building. Another expansion in 1993 added meeting and exhibition rooms, children and music libraries and a local history room.

The library closed in 2014 for a $16 million redevelopment and is slated to reopen in 2017 as the main draw to a new cultural hub called Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries.

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Braddock Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania

Photo: Lee Paxton/Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1888, the Braddock Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania was the first Carnegie library constructed in the United States. Architect William Halsey Wood designed the building with a medieval style using a grant of $357,782 from Carnegie for its construction. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and became a National Historic Landmark in 2012.

The original building housed various recreational facilities, including billiard tables on the first floor and a bathhouse in the basement, according to the library website.An 1893 addition doubled the size of the building to include a music hall, gymnasium, swimming pool and two-lane bowling alley. More recently, the roof was restored to its original terracotta appearance in 1998, and a new children's library opened in 2012 on the second floor.

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Central Library in Edinburgh

Photo: Brian McNeil/Wikimedia Commons

Central Library in Edinburgh opened in 1890 and was funded with about $65,000 from Carnegie. He reportedly sent a telegram to the opening ceremony that said, "We trust that this Library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come." The French Renaissance-styled building sits on the George IV Bridge and loans out half a million books each year.

Interesting tidbit: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, libraries had separate reading rooms for women and men. Also, the first Carnegie libraries had so-called "closed stacks policies," where you weren't allowed to browse a library's shelves. If you wanted a book, you requested it from a staffer, who would get it for you from an area that was off-limits to the public.

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The main library (pictured) and 18 branches of the Pittsburgh public library system are Carnegie libraries, and they were the first ones to use Carnegie's open-shelf policy, which we still use today, where patrons help themselves to books from the shelves. The Pittsburgh libraries were first in line for another library revolution, too: the circulation desk. To prevent theft, libraries stationed huge circulation desks near the front doors as a barrier for would-be thieves. Years later, a manager of Pittsburgh's Homewood branch dubbed this front desk design "the battleship."

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry once wrote, "To this day, Carnegie's free-to-the-people libraries remain Pittsburgh's most significant cultural export, a gift that has shaped the minds and lives of millions."

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University Library in Leuven, Belgium

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In the 1920s, a Carnegie library was built at the University of Leuven in Belgium to replace one destroyed in World War I. Leuven was one of three cities that received Carnegie libraries to replace libraries bombed and damaged along the front lines of war. (Belgrade, Serbia and Reims, France are the other two.) During World War II, the university library was damaged by fire and nearly a million books were lost.

Built in Flemish Renaissance style, the library has a carillon in the tower with 63 bells and houses more than 3 million volumes.

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Carnegie Library in Union, Oregon

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Not all of Carnegie's libraries were statuesque and grand. And this one in Union, Oregon, doesn't need to be. It has another claim to fame: It's the only Carnegie library in Oregon that hasn't been changed and is still used as a library to this day.

In 1912, Carnegie gave the town of Union $5,500 to build a new library, according to the library's website. With that money, a brick library and a levee (to protect the building from a nearby creek) were constructed. His only request? That his name be displayed on the front of the building and that it be noted the library was a gift from him.

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The Carnegie Center of Columbia-Tusculum, Cincinnati

Photo: Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons

The Carnegie Center was built in 1906 in the Beaux-Arts style, with large windows, 22-foot ceilings, brass chandeliers and patterned wood floors. Constructed by the architectural firm of Samuel Hannaford & Sons, it served as a public library until 1959.

These days, the magnificent building is still in use, but it's now privately owned and functions as a "community oriented, non-profit facility offering meeting and event space for cultural enrichment, social interaction and civic participation," according to its website.

At first, Carnegie libraries were built only where the philanthropist had a personal connection, such as Scotland or Pennsylvania. But starting in 1899, he stepped up his gifts, and few towns that requested a grant were refused, regardless of location.

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The Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C.

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Like the Braddock Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania, this massive Beaux-Arts building located in Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C., is on the National Register of Historic Places. Funded in 1902 and designed by the New York firm of Ackerman & Ross, the structure is no longer only a Carnegie library; today it also houses the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which includes the Kiplinger Research Library.

Recently, Apple proposed opening a flagship store in the historic building and reportedly is discussing a lease with Events DC, the authority that owns the property.

This Carnegie library was the first public library in the nation's capital, but it was important for another reason: It was D.C.'s first desegregated public building. While laws in the early 20th century mandated segregation in public schools and recreation facilities, no such requirement was in place for public libraries.

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The Carnegie Library in Savannah

Photo: Google Street View

Like Washington, D.C., the Carnegie libraries in Georgia also have a race-related history. In the early 1900s, African-Americans were generally denied access to public libraries in the Southern U.S. So in 1906, 11 men formed the Colored Library Association of Savannah and began raising money and collecting books to form a library. In 1913, they successfully petitioned Carnegie for funding to build a home for their collection, according to the Georgia Historical Society. It was one of only two Carnegie-funded African-American libraries in the state.

Completed in 1915, the library was designed by local architect Julian deBruyn Kops in the Prairie School style made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright. The building was treated to an $8 million renovation around 2000.

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Teddington Carnegie Library in England

Photo: Jonathan Cardy/Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1906 in Edwardian Baroque style, this public library was designed by famed British architect Henry Cheers. It's still in operation today and serves the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. In 2009, the library reopened after a six-month renovation that added space and rooms while preserving its rich history. There's a garden in the rear and a big glazed dome inside the brick-and-stone structure, according to Historic England.

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Grass Valley Public Library in California

Photo: Isaac Crumm/Wikimedia Commons

The state of California has an impressive 142 Carnegie libraries, including this one in Grass Valley, which is still in operation today. Carnegie donated $15,000 for this building, which was designed by William Mooser in neoclassical style (also known as revival style) and opened to the public in 1916.

Today, this particular library is known as the Royce Branch, and it's part of the Nevada County Library System. The historic building is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Yorkville Library in Toronto

Photo: Wojciech Dittwald/Wikimedia Commons

Canada is also home to an impressive number of Carnegie libraries with 125, including this one in Toronto. In 1903, Carnegie gave $350,000, which was used to build a main library and three branches. The Yorkville Library was the first one built with the grant money, according to its website. Designed by Robert McCallum, the Beaux-Arts design, it "features two pairs of columns, a projected portico, Doric capitals, a bracketed cornice, and stone quoins, band courses and keystones."

The building had a major renovation in 1978 (including an addition) and is listed on Toronto's Inventory of Heritage Properties.