100 Years Ago Today: Carnegie Libraries

Craig Empire, February 19, 1919

Andrew Carnegie, best known as a steel magnate and a philanthropist, donated 90% of his earnings during his lifetime, which amounts to an unparalleled 350 million dollars. That’s the equivalent of billions of dollars today. Jeff Bezos, are you taking notes?

Carnegie Libraries are pillars of Andrew Carnegie’s enduring philanthropic legacy. A Carnegie Library is a public library that was built with money donated by the philanthropist, though the architectural design and construction of the building was handled locally. Many of these buildings not only stand today — in both large cities and small towns — but they continue to operate as public libraries.

Carnegie Library in Silverton, Colorado
Silverton Public Library in Silverton, CO
A Carnegie Library

Between 1883 and 1929, more than 2,500 libraries were built worldwide because of Carnegie’s donations, with more than 1,600 of those in the U.S., and 35 of those libraries in Colorado. The donations were sometimes in the tens of thousands for a small town library, which was a tremendous amount of money for a building in a town with only a few hundred people, like Craig, CO. A building like that immediately became a central community hub.

In order to apply for public library funding, a local official would contact Carnegie directly, and Carnegie’s personal secretary, James Bertram, would make sure the local government could do the following:

  • prove the community’s need for a public library
  • provide a building site
  • pay staff and maintain the library
  • draw from public funds to run the library, aka tax its citizens
  • provide 10% of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation
  • provide free service to all

Carnegie saw public libraries as a service that would provide long term benefits to an entire community, so he wanted to make sure there was enough buy-in from the town’s citizens, as well as financial stability in the local economy, to make the library sustainable long term.

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Andrew Carnegie, framed in books

“An endowed institution is liable to become the prey of a clique. The public ceases to take interest in it, or, rather, never acquires interest in it. The rule has been violated which requires the recipients to help themselves. Everything has been done for the community instead of its being only helped to help itself.”

Andrew Carnegie, “The Best Fields for Philanthropy”. North American Review (1889)
Woodbury Branch of Denver Public Library (built 1912)
A Carnegie Library

Unfortunately, the town of Craig did not build a Carnegie Library, although they’d been digging up support since at least 1907. But they did stabilize the library over the next few years. In March 1919, they moved into a small building next to the Webb Hotel, with local women taking turns acting as librarian. They bought a lot in December 1919, and moved into a former realty office on Yampa Ave in November 1921, with an official librarian, Mrs. Webb. In 1925, they finally built a library when the lease ended on the realty office space. At that point they had 3600 books in their collection. Today, the Craig Branch of the Moffat County Library is located on Green Road in Craig, CO.

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Craig Branch of Moffat County Library

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