Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Revisiting the no-Carnegie mystery

If I were to ask you who was the most important library philanthropist -- or, to make it simpler, imagine that I asked you to name one person who is most often affiliated with public libraries. You might be right if you answered "Andrew Carnegie." From the 1880s through the 1920s, Carnegie built more than 1,600 public libraries in the United States, plus a number of college libraries, plus libraries in other countries.

Given that Carnegie made his fortune in Western Pennsylvania, it isn't a surprise that he donated a lot of money to our state. Looking at tables available on Wikipedia, which are based on research by George Bobinski and Theodore Jones, one finds that Carnegie gave more dollars to Pennsylvania than to any other state except New York. Of the approximately $45 million he provided for libraries across the United States, more than $5 million came to the Keystone State.

Looking closer at the data, however, one sees that the high tab is due largely to massive gifts made to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In 1903, Carnegie provided $1.5 million to build 25 branch libraries for the Free Library of Philadelphia. The previous decade, he spent more than $700,000 on the Forbes Avenue (main) branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and an additional $300,000 on branches throughout that city. He also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a small number of Western Pennsylvania towns where he had substantial business interests or other connections. These libraries were far more elaborate than the simpler structures he built later. For example, the original Carnegie library in Allegheny cost more than $400,000 to build and included substantial lecture halls and a theater. In addition to books, Braddock offered a large auditorium, bowling alley, gymnasium, and swimming pool. The Carnegie library in Carnegie also had (and continues to have) a music hall. The Homestead library, like Braddock, provides a gym, pool, and music hall.

When we exclude these large gifts, it turns out that Carnegie spent less than $2 million erecting libraries in Pennsylvania. In other words, only 26 communities received a library. The states of Indiana (156 grants), California (121), Illinois (105), Iowa (99), Ohio (79), and 10 other states received more donations than Pennsylvania did. If we take the 1900 census as a reference point and calculate Carnegie's generosity in terms of total dollars per capita given to each state, Pennsylvania (about $0.89) fares better than the nation as a whole ($0.60). Yet 9 states and the District of Columbia received more funding according to this measure. In fact, it appears that Carnegie was most generous to states in the Far West, including Wyoming (about $2.78 per capita), Washington ($2.02), California ($1.91), Colorado ($1.44), Oregon ($1.02), Montana ($0.93), and Utah ($0.92). The District of Columbia ($2.62), Indiana ($1.03), and New York ($0.92) also received more funding relative to their populations than Pennsylvania did.

Why weren't more Carnegie libraries built in Pennsylvania?

This question is a crucial and challenging one to answer.

In his book, Bobinski lists 19 communities in Pennsylvania which were offered grants, but never built their libraries: Beaver, Blairsville, Carbondale, Clarion, Clearfield, Dunmore, Greensburg, Huntingdon, Knoxville, Lansdowne, New Castle, Norristown, North East, Slatington, State College, Tyrone, Uniontown, Wilkinsburg, and York (pgs. 116-133). In some cases, such as Beaver, Huntington, and Slatington, the towns were unable support libraries financially. In other localities, such as Blairsville, Carbondale, Clarion, Dunmore, Tyrone, and Uniontown, local councils did not provide the required annual appropriation to support library operations. In New Castle, residents voted down the library in a referendum. At York, it was determined that building the library was illegal. In other cases, such as Greensburg, Lansdowne, and Norristown, Wilkinsburg  there were problems with building sites. At North East, a local donor stepped forward and a Carnegie grant was no longer needed. State College's library, authorized in 1917, was thwarted by World War I and rising building costs.

Pamela Spence Richards' chapter within Robert S. Martin's Carnegie Denied: Communities Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants, 1898-1925 discusses the reasons why some of these libraries never came to fruition. She begins by emphasizing labor controversies, including the Homestead strike and battles for protective legislation for child workers, as generating a "special antipathy" toward capitalists like Carnegie (pg. 13-16). Yet in her case studies of Blairsville, Carbondale, Clarion, Dunmore, New Castle, and Tyrone, Richards found that "rather than any set, predictable pattern emerging from similar towns, Pennsylvania communities around 1900 were apparently relatively isolated, independent organisms with their development only slightly affected by outside factors. Enthusiasms, either positive or negative, about events in the world at large that did not immediately relate to their lives were factors of much less weight than immediate, practical concerns." Since Pennsylvania was (and remains) "a state characterized by decentralized governance and strong local control," individual personalities and timely events played the greatest parts in advancing or thwarting library efforts (pg. 30-31).

Richards' work goes a long way toward explaining why some proposed Carnegie libraries were never completed. In my own work, I can confirm that "immediate, practical concerns" were paramount to Pennsylvanians of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era. At the time, small towns like Clarion and Lebanon were encumbering themselves to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, floating bonds and raising taxes to build roads, schools, and other public facilities. Financially-cautious residents were quite  concerned about the accumulation of public debt and often voted against proposals that were not of dire necessity, including "recreational" items like libraries, parks, and playgrounds. Such accommodations often ended up being funded through door-to-door canvassing and other voluntary efforts.

Richards was also insightful when discussing cultural factors that dissuaded Pennsylvania residents from applying for Carnegie money. An unsigned article on "Pennsylvania Library History" which apparently represented the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission's understanding of the course of public library development in the region, emphasized that the state was home to "at least four races and nationalities" which differed greatly in language and religion. Such differences were so great that "a feeling very akin to hatred was engendered" which was responsible for "the lack of unity in our State which is found even to-day" (see the 1913 issue of Pennsylvania Library Notes, pgs. 1-11). Library promoters noted that Pennsylvanians, especially in rural areas, were very resistant to taxation. In explaining it, they sometimes referenced historical events like the Whiskey Rebellion, as well as the frugality of German and Scotch-Irish settlers. In a similar vein, as explained by State Librarian Thomas Lynch Montgomery, Pennsylvanians believed that "what was worth getting was worth paying for," and the failure of subscription libraries was often interpreted as the public's negative verdict on their necessity. Why should local government force residents to fund institutions that could not garner voluntary support? ("A Survey of Pennsylvania Libraries," Pennsylvania Library Notes, October 1913, pg. 45-59). Thus, Carnegie's requirement that local governments promise annual appropriations was a deal-breaker.

If I were to rewrite Richards' work, I might amplify the discussion on decentralized government. Specifically, I would highlight the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission's failure to promote the Carnegie program. Thumbing through the newsletter of Pennsylvania Library Notes, the commission's mouthpiece, the silence on the Carnegie program is deafening. It astounds me that giventhe commission's  purpose of encouraging public library development, and the intention of PLN as rallying and providing practical tips to new institutions, it never published a "how to" article on applying for a Carnegie grant. There are no laudatory articles about the nation's largest library donor, either. This is quite  strange in light of the fact that the State Librarian, Thomas Lynch Montgomery (served 1903-1921), was native to a city (Philadelphia) which had received a massive grant.

Two decades after Richards wrote her pathbreaking chapter, I would question her contention that turn-of-the-century Pennsylvanians were isolated. Many, especially in the mountain areas of Central Pennsylvania, and in rural communities throughout the state, were isolated geographically, but not always intellectually or socially. Through my searches of local news in Clarion, Lebanon, Lock Haven, and Warren (which Richards could not access as easily in 1993), I have found that the papers reported Carnegie grants in other municipalities, as well as the opening of new libraries in the same region donated by other philanthropists. For instance, within the Warren Ledger I found various articles about the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown, NY, and within the Lock Haven Express, which I finished using this month, I spied numerous articles about the Thomas Beaver Free Library in Danville. Rural newspaper readers would have been aware of major urban libraries in other states, too. The combination of the Astor and Lenox libraries with the resources of the Samuel Tilden estate, which established the New York Public Library in 1895, as well as the construction and opening of the new "Congressional Library" in Washington, D.C. in 1897, were major stories.

Poring over the board of trustees' meeting minutes of the Reading Public Library this week, another possible explanation for the lack of Carnegie library activity was brought to mind:

Possibly, there was a widespread, mistaken belief that the steel magnate only funded new institutions. 

At the turn of the century, Reading's library was operating in a crumbling multipurpose building that had been erected in the 1840s. In 1910, while construction workers attempted to undertake repairs, inspectors discovered  that the foundation at the northeast corner of the structure was "very weak," the walls were 1-3 inches out of plumb, and that many bricks were "soft." City architect A. Smith warned the board that "he did not know what would happen if the North and East walls were torn down." At that point, a trustee suggested contacting Andrew Carnegie, but board president Richmond Jones "was opposed to a Carnegie Library and thought it should be built by the City." He urged that a "careful examination" be made before they decided to tear down the current library (RPL board of trustees meeting minutes, January 25, 1910). For nearly 2 months, the board obtained conflicting opinions as to the soundness of the building. Then, Mayor William Rick made an executive decision, informing the trustees that they were to close the library immediately, remove all employees, and not allow patrons inside. Rick wrote to Carnegie himself to inquire about funding. That spring, citizens also circulated a petition decrying the "unwise and temporizing policy of the repairs now being made" and asking that "a new and fireproof structure be erected (RPL board of trustees meeting minutes, April 18, 1910). In time, Reading obtained its Carnegie library -- a structure costing more than $100,000 opened in 1913.

Particularly interesting about this episode is a comment board president Jones made upon hearing that Carnegie approved Reading's grant request. Within a board meeting, he "stated he had first thought that Mr. Carnegie would not give us any money for a Library Building for the reasons that we already had a Building and could not comply with his requirements." The new library would be "more than he hoped for, for such as satisfactory response" (RPL board of trustees meeting minutes, April 29, 1910). Despite the fact that Reading was in such dire need, it seems that Jones simply assumed Carnegie would not help. 

By the time the philanthropist began to fund libraries outside the Pittsburgh area, many Pennsylvania communities had hosted subscription, YMCA, Sunday school, and even in some cases free libraries for a generation or more. One can only wonder how many other civic leaders mistakenly foreclosed themselves from an opportunity as Jones nearly did.

In the next few months I will visit Johnstown, New Castle, and other towns with Carnegie connections. Hopefully this will shed greater light on the "no Carnegie" mystery!

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