Monday, February 01, 2010

Check It Out

One of the more astounding historical stories out there is that of Andrew Carnegie. He was a true American Dream success - a dirt poor immigrant who worked his way up to become one of the first captains of industry. Some equate that term with robber baron, but there is a difference. Carnegie truly embodied that difference, because he gave away the biggest share of his fortune in philanthropic endeavors. After he sold his record shattering steel business to J. P. Morgan, who founded U.S. Steel from this and other purchases, Carnegie found himself with a lot of money. He felt that one of the steps to his success was the free access to books as a young man that a local gentleman made available to him and others like him. This enabled him to start on becoming a self educated and self made man.

So, he set up a process where he disbursed funds for building libraries in communities that met his requirements which included free access to all, a recurring annual budget, the land to build it on, and to demonstrate the need for a library. Another fairly revolutionary concept used was the "open stack." This meant a patron could wander among the books and choose freely, where before one had to ask the librarian to retrieve a specific volume - the books were not available for public browsing. This was also seen as a step towards better communication with the librarian - for recommendations, finding specific information and so on.

Designs for the libraries were often rather eclectic and diverse. Many different architectural styles are represented across the country. Dodge City's is no different in that regard:
The style of the library reflects the sentiment in American architecture at the turn-of-the-century, which was rebelling against the excessiveness of the mid-Victorian era. Designers were encouraged to return to the use of purer, classical elements. Dodge City's Carnegie building features several classical elements. It is virtually symmetrical and features a center dome with large pediments on either side. The door is framed by large ionic pilasters. The simulated stone foundation mocks that found in ancient Roman archaelogical ruins. The upper lights are of stained glass, one of the features which makes the building unique among Carnegie libraries in Kansas.
So, ancient Roman ruins, consider yourself mocked! Think about this for a minute. Just imagine what this sort of declaration about the design of the new library sounded like to a bunch of rough old prairie cobs farming and running cattle, or even the proprietors of the local haberdashery. This (and the dome) was pretty far out there for the time - I suspect even so by today's standards this would raise an eyebrow or two among the more traditional types. But, this old building has been around long enough to become familiar enough to breed contempt. Enough so that it's lucky to be around - I can remember the battles to save it from destruction. Back in my bar hopping days, it was home to several bars and restaurants. But, it's on the National Register of Historic Places these days, and has been more or less restored as a center for the arts.

Dodge City's Carnegie Library is certainly not the only interesting Carnegie Library out there. I'd bet who ever reads this has or had one fairly close by - they were scattered all over the US and other parts of the world. Perhaps not uncommon, they were definitely significant in many ways. Most communities that received libraries were just coming out of being raw collections of housing and commerce. The people weren't very educated but were now finding it possible to devote more time to education rather than just surviving. The timing of this philanthropy was very, very fortunate. Libraries are more than just a collection of books for a community. Carnegie demonstrated how important they are for the development of a healthy society. That's a pretty good legacy to have.

Dedicated to my friend Earl, the Library Keeper


ptg said...

Great post, Jeffro. Fascinating story and interesting building. I've never been in a bar with a dome.

Earl said...

Dedicated to me? No, I thank you for the kind thoughts, but Carnegie was brilliant, the public libraries he funded were for those with a hunger for more than they had when they walked in the door.

Yeah, he did fine with Railroads and Steel, but I remember he honored his mother and left us the libraries and the notion one ought to do some good with all that money.