Learning From Libraries

Fremont's Carnegie Library, Seattle. Photo: Susie.
Fremont’s Carnegie Library, Seattle.

When I spotted the Fremont Library, with its Mission Revival style that is rare ray of sunshine in the Pacific Northwest, I knew I wanted to do short piece on Carnegie libraries. Carnegie libraries are scattered across the United States. You’ve probably seen one. They tend to be modest in size and many follow a similar floor plan. Actually, many of them still have Carnegie’s name emblazoned across their entry. And, I told myself, if any building has a story to tell, it’s a library! What I did not know is how much the history of Carnegie libraries is the history of libraries as a whole. There is nothing bite-size about this story but it’s worth it. Read on:

Libraries, of course, are not new. The first European settlers in North American brought libraries with them, stowing books in the hulls of their boats drove up and down across ocean swells as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. But books were not free so why should libraries be? Libraries were private, specialized, and expensive. It wasn’t for several hundred years, until the 19th century, that a serious effort began to make libraries free and open to the public. Reformers of the “free” library movement thought libraries might be fix the ills of an industrializing nation by teaching immigrants and the American poor, making them informed voters who were more apt to succeed in society. The aim was high, but steel baron Andrew Carnegie was rich: Between 1886 and 1919, Carnegie paid for the construction of 1,679 new library buildings in the United States (more than $40 million). Another 660 libraries were built in the United Kingdom and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and several others, from New Zealand to Serbia. Carnegie is perhaps better known for giving away money than for what he did to earn it, and for a good reason. By his death, Carnegie gave 90 percent of his railway and steel industry earnings to philanthropic causes.

Ballard Carnegie Library. Photo: Susie.
Ballard Carnegie Library.

The Carnegie library in Seattle’s neighborhood of Ballard is among the libraries that answered the call of reformers. Ballard’s library supplied a place of learning to the thousands of Nordic immigrants of the region, many of whom didn’t even speak English. The Library was built in 1904–just three years before the neighborhood was annexed by the city of Seattle–and functioned as a library until 1963. Now a restaurant, the library is a stone’s throw in distance from the Fremont Library but in appearance couldn’t be farther away. This Renaissance Revival building offers an imposing facade that, with the help of a steep, grassy hill, towers over the sidewalk. The heavy stonework, pink tone, and inset second-level balcony put this library on the ornate and large–if not massive–end of the Carnegie library spectrum.

The more modest Fremont Library was built almost two decades later. Funds were granted by Carnegie in 1917 but it wasn’t until after World War I, in 1921, that the library was completed. Its Mission Revival style evokes Southern California, and it is set back from the street in a welcoming way. The Fremont Library has undergone sympathetic renovation and still functions as Fremont neighborhood’s branch library. Both the Ballard and Fremont Carnegie libraries are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

In the end, the number of interesting stories told by Carnegie libraries across the United States could probably fill a library, themselves. What’s truly impressive is the number of Carnegie libraries still standing and in some stage of use, whether as a library branch or a restaurant.

Want to read more or want to know where I got my information? Check out these links:

The National Park Service on Carnegie Libraries

The Seattle Times on Ballard’s Carnegie Library

The Ballard Library’s Landmark Nomination

Fremont Library’s website


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