Arts and Leisure

Flashback Photos: The Carnegie Libraries of New England

John Logan won approval for not one but three libraries. Carnegie donated $75,000 for the buildings and laid all three cornerstones himself in three hours on March 26, 1913.

Reading, Mass., Carnegie Library

Reading, Mass., Carnegie Library

John Logan won approval for not one but three libraries. Carnegie donated $75,000 for the buildings and laid all three cornerstones himself in three hours on March 26, 1913.

The Worcester Daily Telegram reported on the ceremonies:

At all three branch libraries Mr. Carnegie made brief extemporaneous remarks, at all of them expressing keen pleasure because the city accepted his offer to build the libraries. He said that he is the city’s debtor, not the city his. He said the donors of the sites in the three locations and the city council in providing for the maintenance for these libraries, are the ones entitled to the greatest praise.

The day was cold and raw, and Mr. and Mrs. Carnegie were unprepared for it, having left New York with the sun shining. Mr. Carnegie found he required rubbers, and stopped off at a store in Quinsigamond to equip himself with them.

Andrew Carnegie


Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who made a fortune in steel, then gave away most of it. One of his favorite philanthropies was libraries. He doubled the number of libraries in the United States, giving away 1,681. Of those, 95 were in New England. All but three are still standing. Two, in South Worcester and Rockport, Mass., are now private homes.  One is an Abercrombie & Fitch outlet in Freeport, Maine.

Carnegie was born in Dumfermine, Scotland, on Nov. 25, 1835, and immigrated to the United States in 1848.

Before the Civil War, Carnegie was working as a telegraph messenger in Allegheny City, Pa., when he learned a man named Col. James Anderson opened his library of 400 volumes to working boys on Saturday afternoons.

He credited the library with steering him ‘clear of low fellowship and bad habits,’ and opening ‘precious treasures of knowledge and imagination.’

Fortune smiled on Carnegie, but he didn’t smile much on his workers. In 1892, his managers cut wages and locked out workers at the Homestead, Pa., steel works for 143 days. A bloody conflict resulted and the workers were replaced by scabs. It didn’t do help Carnegie’s reputation for benevolence.

He believed anyone who worked hard could succeed as he did. He believed in giving to the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.”

Puck magazne cartoon, 1903

Puck magazine cartoon, 1903

Beginning in 1881, Carnegie spent 20 years giving away money.  Much of it went to libraries.

Carnegie Libraries

At first, Carnegie only gave libraries to places where he had a personal connection. He started in 1880 in his hometown in Scotland. Allegheny City, Pa., was the first U.S. city to receive a Carnegie gift for a library.

Until 1898, only the Fairfield, Iowa, library was commissioned in America outside of southwestern Pennsylvania.

A typical Carnegie Library cost $50,000. Rarely was a request turned down. He refused to endow his libraries, because, as he said, ‘an endowed institution is liable to become the prey of a clique. The public ceases to take interest.’

Towns had to show they needed a library, provide the building site and pay to staff and maintain the library. Free service had to be provided to all who entered.

After he gave away his first five public libraries, Carnegie created an open shelf policy, which lowered operating costs and encouraged readers to browse. To discourage theft, the circulation desks were made larger than usual and placed near the front door.

The libraries were unique, designed in a variety of styles selected by the town. They were formal, small and simple. Each had a large, welcoming doorway almost always at the top of a staircase, to symbolize the patrons’ elevation by learning. Outside nearly all the libraries had lampposts or lanterns, symbolizing enlightenment.

Variety of Styles

Classical Revival Carnegie Library in South Worcester, Mass.

Classical Revival Carnegie Library in South Worcester, Mass.

They were built in a variety of architectural styles, selected by the town. In New England those styles included Classical Revival, or its offshoot, ‘Carnegie Classical Revival,’ Beaux Arts, Colonial Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne.

Prairie Style Carnegie Library in Vinalhaven, Maine

Prairie Style Carnegie Library in Vinalhaven, Maine

One was built in the Prairie Style on a very non-prairie location: Vinalhaven Island in Maine. John Calvin Stevens, the designer of Maine, designed two, in Houlton and Rumford.

Between 1901 and 1917, Carnegie donated:

  • 43 public libraries in Massachusetts from 35 grants totaling $1,137,500;
  • 18 public libraries in Maine from 18 grants totaling $241,450;
  • 11 public libraries in Connecticut from 8 grants totaling $191,900;
  • Nine public libraries in New Hampshire from nine grants totaling $134,000;
  • Four public libraries in Vermont from four grants of $80,000.

(Take a virtual tour of New England’s public Carnegie Libraries here.)

Rhode Island’s Carnegie Library

The John Hay Carnegie library at Brown University in Providence

The John Hay Carnegie library at Brown University in Providence

Rhode Island has only one Carnegie Library, but it’s a big one: the John Hay Library at Brown University. Carnegie donated $150,000 for the library, half the cost, and asked that it bear Hay’s name. Hay graduated from Brown in 1858, became Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, U.S. Secretary of State and friend of the tycoon.

Carnegie’s academic libraries were larger and more elaborate than his spare, simple public libraries. The interior of the Williston Memorial Library at Mount Holyoke resembles Westminster Hall in England.

The Carnegie Library at Tufts.

The Carnegie Library at Tufts.

In Massachusetts he also donated libraries to Tufts, Smith, Wellesley and Radcliffe. He gave a library to Norwich University in Vermont and the Hamilton Smith Library (now Hall) at the University of New Hampshire. And he donated Carnegie Hall at the University of Maine.

(Take a virtual tour of New England’s academic Carnegie Libraries here.)

Carnegie died Aug. 11, 1919, in Lenox, Mass., at his Shadow Brook estate, then reported to be the second largest private residence in the United States. By then he had given away 95 percent of his fortune.

This story was updated in 2021.



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