Lack of money does not close the book on every Carnegie library
By Mitch Donaberger
While Pittsburgh is wrapped in a struggle with the prospect of closing libraries in its landmark Carnegie Library system, it is not difficult to forget that Andrew Carnegie and his estate were responsible for helping to construct over 2,500 public libraries throughout the United States and the world.
Since their construction, many of them have closed down, been demolished or have been repurposed, but many others are still serving their communities as libraries.
However, despite the threat of closing Carnegie libraries in Pittsburgh , there is at least one Carnegie library in the vast Carnegie empire that is bucking the trend.
Forty miles southwest of Atlanta , the city of Newnan , Ga. , has an unusual claim to fame: It is host to the nation’s only Carnegie Library that has reopened its doors after having been shut down permanently.
The building, given to the city by a member of the Carnegie family in 1904, was officially reopened in September of this year after nearly 20 years of having been repurposed by the city as a court room annex, said Gina Snider, Public Information Officer of the City of Newnan .
After a new Justice Center was constructed in 2006, the Carnegie Library’s building became vacant. Springing on this opportunity, a passionate group of local Carnegie Library advocates called the Newnan Coweta Carnegie Library Foundation generated a grassroots effort to re-open the library, said Glenn Walsh, an expert on Carnegie Libraries from Pittsburgh .
“The library at the edge of town was not easily accessible for people living in the center of town, particularly children,” said Walsh. “So, a neighborhood group started lobbying their town council to convert [the Carnegie building] back to a library.”
Walsh traveled from Pittsburgh to attend the re-opening of the Newnan Carnegie Library and told the Coweta Times-Herald that he was “so glad to be at a Carnegie Library which had a good future.” He added, “Such is not the case in Pittsburgh .”
Walsh was involved in a 2008 effort to help push to keep the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, and he is currently involved with recent protests against closing more libraries in the Pittsburgh library system. He hopes to use the Newnan library as an example of how Carnegie libraries can reopen.
“The Carnegie is one of the most historically significant structures in downtown Newnan,” Snider said in a press release. “The response so far has been really, really positive.”
According to public documents, the library was given $1.5 million for restoration and an operating budget of $200,000 per year by the city council. The restoration project was funded by the city’s General Fund, and also partly by a 2007 Special Local Option Sales Tax.
Snider reported that the library has only one full-time employee and one part-time employee. The original Newnan Library built in 1904 allowed any area resident to check out books. However, the reopened library does not have the funds necessary to allow the same luxury.
“It’s really more of a reading room,” said Snider. “I thought we’d get more flak for that, but the response has been very positive.”
Carnegie gifted libraries to cities under the condition that the buildings belong to the city and that the people funded and maintained the content within the libraries.
“Unfortunately, when Andrew Carnegie gave the gift of the libraries he built the buildings but he did not endow our services,” said Suzanne Thinnes, spokeswoman for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “Part of the problem that we’re facing is that he left it up to the public charge; he said that libraries were a gift to the public but the public needed to sustain them.”
Gerry Blaikie, owner of a Web site dedicated to Carnegie Libraries in Scotland , said by e-mail that most of the original libraries built in Carnegie’s native Scotland are still in operation.
The exception is that, due to a deterioration of industrial neighborhoods, many areas of Glasgow have seen Carnegie library closings. Glasgow is the port which Andrew Carnegie and his family passed through when emigrating to the United States . The city had a special significance with Carnegie, Blaikie said.
But, despite closings and re-openings in the storied history of the Carnegie Library system, Walsh points out the sheer scale of their spread.
“Had Andrew Carnegie not donated so many libraries, of course cities and towns would have still built libraries,” he said. “[But] thanks to Andrew Carnegie, free public libraries can be found in every civilized country on Earth.”