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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

D.C. Library and Carnegies in America

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, November 9, 2014


Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t rattle the front door of the Carnegie Library in Mt.Vernon Square in Washington, D.C.  The problem is that it has been more than 40 years since the marble building as served as a library.


The D.C. Library moved to a new building that is 8 times larger than the Carnegie in 1972.  The new modern, glass and steel structure was the last building designed by Mies van der Rohe and both the old and new library buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.


The D.C. Carnegie Library was constructed in 1903 using a classic design for larger city Carnegies of the day.  By the 1930s, the building was too small for D.C. but it took until 1961 for a study to be done to replace the building.


The new D.C. Library provided much-needed space, but the former library at Mt. Vernon Square became an orphan building with no occupant.


For some time, it was used for the local historical society, and then it was used for special events relating to the neighboring convention center.


Various other suggestions have been made for the grand old building to no avail.  The new D.C. Library, called the MLK Library, has been around so long it is time for a renovation.


An article by Kriston Capps in “CityLab” continues to discuss Carnegie Libraries around the nation and their use today.


Between 1893 and 1919 Carnegie funded 1,689 libraries in the United States with half still in use as libraries today.  Another 350 have been repurposed and another 275 have been demolished.


Seventy percent of Carnegie Libraries were built in small towns across the nation, including every state except Alaska, Delaware, and Rhode Island.


Early Carnegie Libraries had a multitude of architectural styles, but his Secretary James Bertram took over the process of library funding in 1903.


Bertram reviewed every plan for a new Carnegie Library building and often wrote tough letters in his Scottish style to the towns telling them what not to do.


In 1911 a pamphlet was developed titled, “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings” and basically provided six layout templates for their design.  That is why Carnegie Libraries between 1903-1919 fit one of the patterns in the pamphlet.


Carnegie Libraries were to have a flat side with no windows on the back so additions could be placed there in the future.


The Carnegie brochure continued in use for any library construction well after the American Fork, Utah library became the last one to be funded.  (Sorry, it was demolished)


As accessibility issues developed in the 1960s, the stairs and lack of a street-level entrance doomed many Carnegie Libraries.  A few libraries tried wrapping a new addition around the front of the Carnegie, and burying the original in the rear for storage.


That was the story of the Carnegie Library I directed in Delphos, Ohio for six years. The original building was buried in the back and the façade scrapped clean of architectural decoration and covered with white plaster.


The same plan was considered here in Steubenville in 1960, by removing the front yard terrace and building an oval library to house the library functions, covering the 1902 Carnegie building which would be used for storage.


The other aspect that Carnegie Libraries brought to America was the addition of a library specifically for children.  Before 1890, children’s books were rare and a place for children in a library was almost unknown.


The author closes with a quotation from Abigail A. Van Slyck, author of the book “Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture.”  She says, “What you see is a transition of public librarianship over a century and a half that demonstrates the community’s need for a public library---and how that changing need is manifest in the architecture.”