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Column: Carnegie’s legacy one for the books

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Andrew Carnegie was not a Hoosier. He was born in Scotland and lived his life in the U.S. East. However, the steel magnate left a lasting impression on Indiana — 164 impressions, to be exact. That’s how many public libraries Carnegie gave to the Hoosier state.

National Library Week (April 13 to 19) is a good time to check out the nice little libraries Carnegie built for Hoosiers a century ago.

As is widely known, he made his fortune in steel in the latter part of the 18th century. As he grew older, he had a desire to start giving back. His goal, he said, was “the improvement of mankind.” By the time he died in 1919, he had given away more than 90 percent of his wealth. His money went to install 7,000 church organs across the nation and to create the Carnegie Hero Fund, the Carnegie Institutes and the Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Libraries, though, were his passion. “It was from my own early experience,” Carnegie said, “that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to girls and boys who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it as the founding of a public library.”

For about 30 years beginning in 1890, Andrew Carnegie provided funds for 1,679 public libraries in towns and cities around the United States. Another 830 were built in other parts of the world.

Ladies’ book clubs, school groups and civic organizations joined forces across America to apply for Carnegie funds. Communities were required to provide a suitable tract of land and establish a tax that would generate funds for maintenance of the building once it was constructed.

Hoosiers jumped on the bandwagon. With 164 applications granted, more Carnegie libraries were built in Indiana than in any other state.

The first was in Goshen, dedicated in 1903. The last ones were built in Lowell and North Vernon in 1918. During that 15-year span, thousands of Hoosiers were introduced to their own neighborhood libraries. No fee was to be charged for a library card, and Carnegie insisted that books be placed on open shelves so readers could browse on their own.

Carnegie libraries were sturdy buildings of brick, limestone and marble, designed by leading architects. They were built in a variety of styles, including Italian Renaissance, Spanish Colonial, Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival.

A survey some years ago found that over 80 percent of the Carnegie libraries are still standing. More than half of those are still in use as libraries. Others have been converted into public meeting halls, restaurants, bookstores

and residences.

Franklin was the beneficiary of a Carnegie library in 1915. For decades, the charming brick building on East Madison Street was the destination for readers of all ages. Now it houses condominiums for those who have chosen to live within the “storied” walls of the historic structure.

Of the five Carnegie libraries built in Indianapolis, two have been demolished and one is a community center. The other two are still happily serving as libraries. The one on East Washington Street has two gnomes perched high above the front door. One has an open book on his lap, while the other has a closed book and is peering down on those who pass through the doors. These mysterious sprites have been greeting library visitors for more than a century.

The Spades Park Library on the near northeast side of the capital city is still a vital part of its community. Built in Italian style with oriental brick and terra cotta, the red tile roof has sheltered books and readers since 1912.

There is hardly a county in Indiana that does not have a Carnegie library building. In many cases, the stately structure still is serving as a library and center of learning. Computers now sit on library tables, and reading is on video screens as well as printed pages; but the vision of Andrew Carnegie is still being preserved.

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” he said. “It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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