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Access To Books As A Youngster Inspired Carnegie

This is the first part in a three-part WESA special on public libraries. Find the second segment hereand the third here

Free to the People. The words are etched above the entrance to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch in Oakland. It’s a concept that was once considered radical, but has become an essential part of American communities.

Andrew Carnegie was 13 years old when he arrived in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood. A native of Scotland, Carnegie was bright and curious, says Marilyn Holt, head of the library’s Pennsylvania Department. He wanted to continue the education he’d started overseas, but recognized that his family needed him to earn money.

Credit Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
As an adolescent, Carnegie was permitted to spend a few hours a week in the private library of a wealthy man. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch in Oakland included a natural history museum, art gallery, and music hall.

“So Andrew had to go to work,” Holt said. His first position was as a bobbin boy at a cotton factory, but soon he learned about a messenger job where “he was able to learn all about the city.”

While working, Carnegie met Col. James Anderson, a wealthy iron manufacturer. On Saturdays, Anderson opened his private literary collection of 400 pieces to young men. In his 1920 autobiography, Carnegie wrote that his “future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came a new volume could be obtained.”

A voracious reader, Carnegie formed conversation clubs with his friends to discuss literature. Holt said the experience was so impactful that he promised to do the same for young readers if he ever had the means.

Carnegie would go on to amass a steel empire and become one of the wealthiest industrialists in the world. While his steel mills employed thousands and helped Pittsburgh become a major manufacturing hub, he was also a controversial figure. His involvement in the bloody 1892 Homestead Steel Strike and 1889 Johnstown flood that killed more than 2,000 people have been heavily criticized.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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A display case in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch has the newspaper article announcing the industrialist's death.

In his retirement in the late 19th century, Carnegie began opening free public libraries. His first gift was to his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland and his second was to Allegheny City. But the first to open in the U.S. was in Braddock, Pa., where his Edgar Thompson Steel Works was located.

In 1893, workers broke ground on the Carnegie Library’s main branch, next to land that would become Schenley Plaza. The building houses a music hall, art gallery and natural history museum, and briefly, two Venetian towers.

“But when the building actually was brought to fruition, Mr. Carnegie said that he thought that the twin towers made it look like a mule with long ears,” Holt said. “So the towers came down.”

At the time, archaeologists were unearthing dinosaur fossils in the West, and Carnegie wanted one. Holt said he wanted the four cultural institutions to “be his jewel” and an indispensable resource for Pittsburgh.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches see more than 2.9 million visitors each year. The main branch in Oakland has undergone several transformations, most recently in 2004, when many of the building's original artifacts were uncovered and restored.

“He felt that all of these things together would inspire people,” Holt said. “People would come and they would see the great art, they would read the great books, they would educate themselves.”

The library branch melds practicality with extravagant detail. Jessica Smith, a teen librarian, leads historic tours through the Oakland facility and says the juxtaposition was intentional.

“You get that feeling of royalty and grandeur, and at the same time … [the sense that] this is for anybody at any station to come in and utilize,” Smith said.

Original tile work in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch in Oakland were uncovered and restored during the 2004 renovation. The space was meant to seem grand and ornate, while still accessible to regular citizens.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

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Marble lines the lobby and tile decorates the floors. On Smith’s tours, she identifies “hidden gems,” like printer's markers — an architect’s “calling card” — and medallions depicting historical figures from the Renaissance. While walking through stacks, she looked up and noted the word “Carnegie” inscribed into a white steel beam.

The art and history museums and music hall were once accessible and free to library patrons, but over time, the four separated for financial reasons.

Each of Carnegie’s libraries were constructed to safely house books — they were typically brick and made without fireplaces. Some, like the Homestead branch, had recreational facilities like swimming pools. Anne Madarasz, historian with the Senator John Heinz History Center, said that library swimming pool produced some significant athletes.

“There are, from that swim team, four women who went and competed for the U.S. for the Olympics,” Madarasz said. “You don’t think about a library as a place that has a great sports tradition, but the clubs and athletes associated with that Carnegie library are renowned for their success.”

Credit Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
A circulation desk at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh around the late 19th, early 20th century. Prior to the library's open stack approach, only librarians could find and check out books for visitors.

Many of Carnegie’s original libraries were constructed near his steel mills, so workers and their families could access information as he had when he was young in Anderson’s home. Holt said the books purchased by the system at the time reflected the diversity of the city.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh teen librarian Jess Smith points to the achievement wall, where students can accumulate badges after learning a new task, like sewing or DSLR camera operating. The teen space in the main branch was once called the Colonel James Anderson Reading Room, after the man who opened his private library to working boys, including Andrew Carnegie.

“We were purchasing books in the native languages of many of the immigrants who came here so that they could find material to read and they were continuing to expand their horizon,” Holt said.

Librarians would travel to different communities with tote bags of books. The first program to train children’s librarians was established in Pittsburgh.

“We understood that training the children's librarian was crucial to build a reader to build a person who understood that the resources are here and to love that lifelong learning,” Holt said.

The buildings were physically designed to be accessible to children. In the children’s section of the main branch, a tiny sink was installed so kids could wash their hands — Pittsburgh was very smoky then — before picking up a book. Circulation desks were lowered to the level of a child and the stacks were open, so people could find books themselves.

“This was a really new idea in libraries,” Smith said. “Users of various ages were really at the forefront of designing the building and taking their needs into consideration.”

Carnegie opened more libraries around the city and eventually the country and beyond. To receive funding, communities had to prove that the library was wanted and would be used by its members. They were only given funds for construction, and had to find other funding for books and staff. Today there are more than 2,500 Carnegie libraries around the world.

WESA receives funding from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.