Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Library Builders

"There was such a passion in people's memories of that building," recalls Debbie Goodwin, who as Executive Director of the Humboldt Arts Council from 1997 to 2002, supervised the transformation of Eureka's Carnegie library on F Street into the Morris Graves Museum of Art. That passion was important to the success of the "buy a brick" campaign of small donations that convinced large grantmakers that the community supported the effort. Now Interim Director of University Advancement at HSU, Goodwin remembers," Everyone just loved that building. That emotional tie was the common denominator."

Such memories (including those concerning Ralph, the library ghost) are sure to be shared in the coming weeks, as the Humboldt Arts Council kicks off a Centennial Celebration for the Carnegie building, erected in 1904. Music by Gil Cline's trumpet quartet (including a trumpet fanfare composed for the event) and the Midnight Jazztet, plus birthday cake from Ramone's Bakery will highlight the Arts Alive! party at the Morris Graves on Saturday, October 2. Other events include docent-led tours of the Carnegie building, and an exhibit of Peter Palmquist's historical photographs.

The Eureka library was one of 1,681 across America (with nearly 900 more in the British Isles and around the world) built with $56 million donated by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, mostly between the years 1889 to 1923.

Carnegie generally paid only for construction, insisting that local communities pledge financial support to staff and maintain its library, and fill it with books. The libraries had to be open to the public free of charge. These two conditions helped spur the spread of free public libraries, which were relatively rare in the late nineteenth century.

The idea that government should support such institutions was so new that many states had no laws enabling their towns and cities to fund their libraries. Pennsylvania, where Carnegie made his fortune, hastily passed such a law only when Pittsburgh found it couldn't meet Carnegie's conditions for the libraries he promised the city. Eureka was the first city in California to finance a library under this state's enabling legislation, passed in 1878. Carnegie provided $20,000.

After the first few years, Carnegie delegated decision-making powers over the many applications to his secretary, James Bertram. A Scotsman like Carnegie, Bertram became known for his scrupulous attention to detail, and his sometimes scathing letters to petitioners. When the Eureka library asked for funds to expand, Bertram refused, citing the wasted space of a large rotunda, and the extravagance of the glass dome. (Now of course, the rotunda is highly valued as a performance space.) Shortly after Eureka's was built, Carnegie and Bertram began insisting on more uniform design for subsequent libraries, which stressed functional spaces within a sober shell, a style that became known as Carnegie Classical.

Several other communities in the region received Carnegie libraries, and their current disposition reflects the various fates of these buildings across the country, as the library needs of many towns outgrew these facilities, or they became otherwise unsuitable. Built the same year as Eureka's, the Redding library was demolished in 1962. Ferndale's building, opened in 1910, remained a public library. The Carnegie in Ukiah (1914) became a private office. In Willitis (1915) it houses a cable TV office, and the Yreka building (1915) hosts the police department.

Horatio Carnegie

So who was Andrew Carnegie, and why did he become the Johnny Appleseed of American public libraries? From modest though not dire circumstances in Scotland, Carnegie's family emigrated to America in 1848, when Andrew was 13 years old. His life became a living Horatio Alger story: in fact it could have been the template for those tales of a clever boy who with luck and pluck seizes a sudden opportunity to catch the favorable attention of a powerful elder. His virtues recognized and his talents nurtured, he begins his rapid rise to success, eventually leaving his mentor in the dust. Rich and famous, he marries the girl he admires, and rewards his mother's devotion with wealth and the adulation of her former neighbors, when they return in triumph to the place where they were poor. Andrew Carnegie did all that, and more.

Proponents of such models usually fail to mention that such fortune necessarily falls on few. Carnegie's case is even more singular: as perspicacious and capable as he was, Carnegie was in exactly the right place at the right time to ride and guide the tide of American industrial expansion, eventually becoming by some measures the richest man in the world. He was even from the momentarily right ethnic group, favored by fellow Scotsmen in higher places. His first mentor, who took him to Washington to run the railroads for President Lincoln in the Civil War, was even named Scott.

Young Andrew's first break was delivering telegrams to the important businessmen of Pittsburgh, then a frontier town rapidly becoming the financial gateway to the West. (Carnegie, who even as a young adult weighed less than 100 pounds, fancied himself a westerner. According to his autobiography, in his twenties he favored "great heavy boots, loose collar, and general roughness of attire [which]were then peculiar to the West, and in our circle considered manly.") From the telegraph office in nearby Greensburg, he watched the railroad being built, and he found his immediate future in its expansion. The railroad made rapid industrial growth practical, and almost everything Carnegie needed to build his empire, first in iron and then in steel---especially the coal, coke, and immigrant workforce-was available within fifty miles of his first home in America.

He was a multimillionaire before the age of 30 and climaxed his business career at 66 by selling the assets that became the United States Steel Corporation. An industrial pioneer who succeeded by insisting on quality, investing in technology, tightly controlling all aspects of his business and keeping labor costs down, Carnegie then became the proponent of "scientific philanthropy." While believing that progress depends on the unfettered freedom of innovators to pursue riches, he also insisted that they had the responsibility to judiciously devote their wealth to the public good. The same principles and wisdom that guided the accumulation of their wealth should be applied to giving it away.

But in practice, Carnegie's choices of beneficiaries can also be traced to revelatory experiences in his early life. In exchange for free telegraph service, delivery boys got free admission to the fledgling Pittsburgh Theatre, where young Andrew thrilled to performances of Shakespeare and became attracted to classical music and art. Hence, New York's Carnegie Hall, and the premiere arts institution in Pittsburgh, now known simply as The Carnegie (which in Pittsburgh as in Scotland is pronounced "CarNEGie,"), its main complex not far from Carnegie Mellon University.

It should be explained that in those days as perhaps not in ours, aspiration to success meant not only attaining wealth but access to knowledge and the cultivation of taste and discernment. Carnegie's passion for libraries can be traced to two events he notes in his autobiography: the importance to his self-education of books from the collection of a Pittsburgh gentleman who allowed local boys to borrow a book a week, and his first view of another prominent man's private library in Greensburg, which caused him to pledge: "Someday, I'll have a library."

Seldom mentioned in chronicles of Carnegie's giving are the men and women who labored twelve-hour shifts in his mills and mines, the sources of his fortune. They included my paternal great-grandfather, who worked in a Carnegie mine, and grandfather, who contracted black lung disease in those same mines. Their names adorn no bricks in a Carnegie library, but their descendants have often made use of the libraries their labor paid for, sources of their cherished childhood memories.