Old Fashioned Library of the Future? How Carnegie Libraries Point Toward the 21st Century


When you spot one of the quaint Carnegie libraries that linger around America’s towns and cities, do you see them as a vision of great future library design?  If not, you should.  

The standard features of Carnegie libraries strikingly are similar to the modern ideal AND drastically different from the mid-century book-warehouse buildings that came between then and now.  The Library of the Future, per citylab.com anyway, features publicly available space (both for meeting and making things) as much as it does books.  Carnegie libraries always featured large areas dedicated to quiet table work (laptop areas, anyone?) and large community rooms and public bathrooms in addition to the baseline shelf space.  Hmm.

The Story of the Carnegie Libraries

Andrew Carnegie was the richest man in the world in 1901. Believing that “the man who dies rich, dies in disgrace,” he gave away 90% of his fortune  – about $350 million – funding libraries, church organs and academic institutions in the US and around the world, and pioneering the concept of free public services.

Carnegie (no saint) amassed his fortune through pretty horrible employment practices and was fiercely opposed to unionizing workers who demanded crazy concessions like shortening their 12 hour a day 6 day a week work schedule.  His philanthropy came with a lot of strings – part of his fun was determining how the largesse was spent.  He preferred to donate to causes that would “help those who helped themselves,” hence a lot of libraries.  When he approved a library grant, he also required that the town or city provide the site, books, staff and an guarantee of operating funds.

How Carnegie Defined the American Library

In 1919, there were about 3500 public libraries in the US … half of them funded by Carnegie.  

He had a direct influence on the design of the buildings he funded.  After some of his early grant funded libraries seemed too extravagant to the notorious tightwad, Carnegie had his secretary, James Bertram, develop a pamphlet to guide applicant communities in an appropriate direction.  “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings,” contained, among other things, six template floor plans for appropriate library designs.  Architectural style is not specified, but the internal program is – reading room, open stacks, public lecture room, public bathrooms, and librarian/reference area show up in each.   

That influence extended far beyond the buildings he personally paid for.  Carnegie’s philanthropy started a huge trend and many cities and towns created library buildings in a similar style making it difficult to identify the actual Carnegie libraries unless his name is carved on a cornerstone.

Here is how to spot a library from that era, at a glance:

Two level layout

Below (often near grade level) is a community floor which contains a public lecture room, bathrooms and staff and service areas.  This design has proved very helpful in retrofitting these buildings for ADA access.

Open space on the Main level

A grand entrance stair leads up to a mostly-open reading room (low stacks mixed with tables or and high shelves around the exterior) all overlooked by a librarian’s station (where one staff member could keep an eye on the whole floor at once).

LOTS of Light

Windows, windows, and more windows.  There was artificial light at the turn of the last century but it wasn’t ideal or cheap.  Natural light was prized for all real work and there would always be many large high windows located around the reading room letting in light from multiple sides.

So What Happened to the Carnegie Libraries?

Some are still in operation as libraries today.  Others have been repurposed as community buildings, private businesses, etc.  Many were torn down during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s when a very different ideal of “library” held sway in the American eye and most of THOSE are now being judged inadequate as the pendulum swings back.  The common refrain: an adorable (if too-small) Carnegie central library is razed and replaced with a poorly-lit abomination of brutalist concrete.  Then THAT building is torn down and updated into something glassy and modern in the last decade.

We’ll use the example of the main Washington, DC library as an example for this post, since it comes with a side dish of a delightfully misguided report by consulting firm, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, quoted in a great recent Architect Magazine feature.  The 1961 report found the original Carnegie library to be totally misguided criticizing it roundly, and recommending all the (now-horrible) features that its mid-century replacement should have.

A telling excerpt of the report from that feature:

“Today windows serve practically no useful purpose,” this report claimed. “Modern lighting and air conditioning methods have obviated the need for reliance on natural light and air. In fact, a much more even and satisfactory level of lighting and temperature can be achieved if there are no windows. Windows are a special nuisance in a library. They consume wall space against which shelves or exhibits can be placed. The view is distracting to the reader. Adjustments to blinds and sashes are a constant source of irritation to attendants. Furthermore, windows are costly to clean and otherwise maintain.”

Instead, the new library should “be ‘modern inside and out,’ with low ceilings and minimal interior walls,” and should also contain smoking lounges (not just one but THREE) plus a large area for payphone booths.

And it was.  The replacement MLK library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and completed in 1971, was the dream of the above consultants made manifest … and is a pretty terrible modern library – grim, dark and fractured.  The now-retired chief librarian of the central branch described its auditorium as, “the most depressing place to ever attend a public meeting.” Now the city is undertaking a large and costly renovation to try to make the building a little more “humane,” to quote design architect, Mecanoo.

Full Circle:  Back to Good Light, ‘Reading’ Rooms and Grand Staircases

An article on that update process in the Washingtonian earlier this year, also harks back to the ideals of those Carnegie libraries, quoting Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the library ED, “Carnegie wanted to create a space where people could find tools to get a leg up in life.”  That doesn’t just mean a warehouse for books.  It means access to things the public needed but couldn’t get.  Today that idea translated to digital access for people who can’t afford internet access.  To serve people who can get online, it also means “maker spaces” where people can get access to physical and digital tools not available by smart phone.

And so we come all the way around.  Libraries being built today may have more bookshelf space than their turn-of-the-last-century predecessors, sure.   However, they share that early affinity for public open space, high ceilings, natural light and eyes-on-the-patron librarian stations.  Now even the shelf space needs of the past 100 years are dropping off – as more and more information is available digitally.  The remaining Carnegie libraries form the framework of the the Library of the Future pretty darn well.