Funding Carnegie Libraries

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The Greensboro Public Library's Carnegie building with its first bookmobile parked in front, 1926. The building housed the library from 1906-1939. The library was segregated and a Carnegie building for African American patrons opened in 1924. Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

The first Carnegie library was built in Andrew Carnegie's hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland. It opened to the public in 1883 with Carnegie's "Let there be light" motto carved into the building's sandstone entrance. It was the first in a series of Carnegie libraries built in places where he had a personal connection: first in his birthplace, and the next several in Pittsburgh, where he built his fortune. The first Carnegie library to open in the United States, for example, opened a few miles from Pittsburgh in Braddock—a town that was home to a mill for Carnegie's Steel Company. Ultimately, nine of the first thirteen commissioned Carnegie libraries were built in the Pittsburgh area.

After 1898, thanks in part to women's groups nationwide organizing to establish community libraries, Carnegie began expanding his efforts across the country. Towns began sending requests for funding to Carnegie, citing everything from the need for a way to counteract the influence of the town’s saloons, to the need for a Carnegie library because a rival town had one. Funding was in extremely high demand, as few public libraries had dedicated spaces of their own. Carnegie began to use a formula to determine which of the many requests he would fund. Rather than endowing libraries, Carnegie required each town to contribute ten percent of the annual funding to its library, supply its own building site, and provide free service to the public.

In addition to public libraries, Carnegie also helped fund university library spaces, as well as separate public libraries for African American patrons in places throughout the United States where segregation laws barred them from using other public library spaces.