Public Libraries

Jump to list of public libraries

Historical information

In 1892, Fairfield, Iowa, received a grant from Andrew Carnegie for $40,000 to build a public library; by April, the gift had been increased to $40,000. The significance of Carnegie’s gift to Fairfield was three-fold. The gift was 1) Carnegie’s first grant to a community he had presumably never visited, 2) it was Carnegie’s first gift for a library west of Allegheny City (Pittsburgh), and 3) it was the gift that essentially launched Carnegie’s unnamed and unadvertised library program, a program that provided only library buildings. Between 1892 and 1919, Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation provided grants for 1680 public library buildings in 1412 American communities at a cost of $41,133,850.1 According to Carnegie’s requirements, each community was required to demonstrate support by the city council, to provide a site for the building, and it was to tax itself yearly at a tenth of his grant.2 Every state except Delaware, Rhode Island, and Alaska received at least one grant from Carnegie.3

The state of Iowa was perfectly positioned to take full advantage of Carnegie’s generosity. In 1873, Iowa had become the 10th state to enact legislation that allowed towns to establish and maintain public libraries through taxation.4 In 1897, the state had granted partial suffrage to women allowing them to vote on “yes” and “no” issues such as the establishment of a public library.5 By 1900, Iowa’s 28th General Assembly created the Iowa Library Commission which was responsible for encouraging library growth across the state.6

For communities across Iowa, Carnegie’s gift to Fairfield provided a powerful incentive to acquire a similar cultural landmark. Often led by the women’s organizations, 104 Iowa communities applied for grants from Carnegie; 5 towns eventually chose not to accept their grants.7 However, the other 99 communities accepted their Carnegie grants to build 101 public libraries (Waterloo received money for 2 libraries, and Sioux City received money for a main library and a branch). By any measure, the participation of the Iowa communities in the Carnegie program was remarkable: Iowa ranked 4th in the number of grants received, Iowa ranked 6th in the number of libraries built, and Carnegie’s gifts of $1,495,706 for the 101 Iowa public libraries had it ranked 8th in terms of funding.8 These rankings are also made significant by the fact that Iowa’s population in 1910 numbered 2,224,771 when contrasted with 1st ranked Indiana (2,700,876), 2nd ranked California (2,377,549), and 3rd ranked Illinois (5,638,591).9 Additionally, 7 Iowa colleges and universities received funding to build academic libraries between 1901 and 1906.10

In Iowa, the years between Carnegie’s grants from 1892 to 1917, were a period of remarkable library expansion. In 1903, at the first publication of the State Library Commission, Iowa had 77 public libraries, and Carnegie had provided grants for the buildings in only 44 of those communities.11 By 1918, there were 136 public libraries, and Carnegie funds had provided the 97 buildings for those communities.12 Interestingly, the distribution of the public libraries across the state was not systematic or comprehensive. In June of 1920, there were still 10 county seats without a public library, and 5 counties were without a library altogether, although there were 20 counties that had received 2 or more Carnegie grants.

The uneven distribution of Carnegie libraries across the state demonstrates that Iowa communities took the initiative to pursue the Carnegie funds individually. In almost every situation, an architect from outside the community was hired to design the buildings that were intended to be as modern and stylish as any other being built across the country. The libraries were heralded as symbols of community pride and achievement. This rich cultural heritage continues a century later as so many of the Iowa communities have found ways to celebrate this fascinating historical movement through the preservation of their venerable Carnegie buildings.

1 The figure for total Carnegie giving for public libraries in the U.S. is taken from George Bobinski in Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969), page 17, with the addition of the $100,000 that was given to Hawaii (page 242.) These numbers also correspond to those published by Durand L. Miller, Carnegie Grants for Library Buildings 1890-1917 (New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1943), page 8. However, this figure is different from the one given by Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997), page 3, which is slightly higher at $41,478,689. The records held by the Carnegie Corporation of New York were the sources for Miller, Bobinski, and Jones. Although some sources cite Jones as his publication is the most recent, there are errors in his numbers as well.
2 Bobinski, page 38-45; Jones, page 26.
3 Bobinski, page 20. At the time of Carnegie’s grants, Hawaii and Alaska were not states. However, Honolulu, and San Juan, Puerto Rico were both U.S. Territories, and they each received a grant of $100,000. (Bobinski, page 242.)
4 Bobinski, page 6.
5Code of Iowa, 1897, Section 1131, 28th General Assembly, Chapter 39.
6First Report of the Iowa Library Commission, 1900-1903. Des Moines, 1904, page 7.
7 Bobinski, 115-142.
8 Bobinski, 16-21.
9Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910, Vol. 2 Population 1910 Reports by States Alabama-Montana, 1915, California on p.140, Illinois on p.438, Indiana on p.520, and Iowa on p.582.
10 Durand R. Miller, Carnegie Grants for Library Buildings, 1890-1917. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1943, 38-40.
11 Iowa Library Commission. First Report of the Iowa Library Commission. Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1904, 13.
12 Iowa Library Commission. Tenth Report of the Iowa Library Commission. Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1920, 25-26.

Public libraries by city