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Book review - Free to All

 ·  ☕ 11 min read


Title: Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920

Author: Abigail A. Van Slyck

How I learned about it: The author has an article in Library as Place, and I considered buying this book after reading that, but didn’t at first; but then while reading the history of libraries chapter of Foundations of Library and Information Science, the section about Carnegie’s influence was long enough that I decided this book was worth it.

Would I recommend: Yep, a relatively quick read (with a lot of pictures!) that adds specific architectural considerations as a dimension to the history of libraries. My only real complaint is that some of the pictures have pretty poor contrast in print, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be depicted; that holds for both photographs and building plans.

General comments

Free to All was a lot of fun. Other than the author’s paper in Library as Place, it’s the first thing I’ve read about historical architecture, and I’m immediately interested in the subject. The book’s tone is fairly conversational, and the author cites primary sources, many of which are physical buildings or their plans.

As the title says, the book only covers the period of 1890-1920, so in particular it doesn’t include the 1923 Williamson Report (non-wikipedia link to text of report) or the Carnegie Corporation’s funding of library schools. (I didn’t pay attention to the subtitle and thought it might, but it doesn’t.) That’s not really a criticism at all, just a note.

What it does have is an annotated bibliography in the form of end notes, so if you’re looking for further reading, there’s twenty-two pages of that available. I did buy two books from the end notes, Constructing Chicago and Mechanical Brides - even though my to-read list at this point is so very long already!

Chapter notes

By the way, here’s some color photos and prints of Carnegie library buildings. They’re not labeled that well but I found them when searching for the Raton, New Mexico building.

Chapter 1 - Giving: The Reform of American Library Philanthropy

Chapter 1 begins by describing the philanthropic works of George Peabody, Walter Newberry, and Charles Winn (that last link points to a library since Charles Winn doesn’t have a Wikipedia page of his own, though his father does), and the architectural style of Henry Hobson Richardson. This style contained a blend of austere and familial to honor the philanthropist as patriarch, and was both cost-inefficient and also terrible for librarians. ALA member William Poole hated the architecture for a number of reasons, but Carnegie’s early libraries, such as the one in Allegheny City, used this style regardless.

Carnegie changed his style of philanthropy in response to criticisms by Washington Gladden, allotting a fixed amount of money to towns and cities who requested libraries based on population. The location would also have to pledge a budget of their own for continuing upkeep. Because of this fixed rule, he was able to remove himself from the equation and delegate to secretary James Bertram. He also founded the Carnegie Corporation. After a review found that cities were going over budget constructing their libraries, Bertram began to suggest Poole’s preferences for buildings, publishing a pamphlet titled “Notes on the Erection of Library Bildings [sic].” So Poole’s ideas were implemented, albeit for cost-saving reasons.

Chapter 2 - Making: The Marketing of Library Design

There are elements of standardization evident in many of the Carnegie libraries which date back to before the publication of Notes on the Erection of Library Bildings. Part of this trend can be attributed to the Library Bureau, which was founded by Melvil Dewey in 1876 and supplied standardized…everything to libraries. Over time, the Bureau worked more closely with architects, which may be due to Dewey’s departure in 1901; he was opposed to anything aesthetic, and architects liked aesthetics.

Despite Carnegie’s desire to let local cities determine how to proceed with their own libraries, Bertram wanted architects with experience designing libraries. This requirement helped fuel the movement towards specialization within the architecture profession. Edward Tilton was an architect and a personal friend of Bertram’s, who became responsible for a large number of Carnegie libraries, particularly in the East coast. In the Midwest, the firm Patton & Miller had Bertram’s favor, though after they split, Patton retained it by continuing to advise cities to stay under budget, and Miller did not and lost it.

Chapter 3 - Taking: Libraries and Cultural Politics, Part I

The Carnegie requirement that city officials be responsible for planning the library exposed tensions between library boards and other interests in the city. Large central libraries were often built in inconvenient places in keeping with the City Beautiful movement philosophy; examples include the Boston Public Library and New York Public Library. Of these, the former was modeled on the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, while the latter was less specifically inspired and designed in accordance with École des Beaux-Arts principles. Detroit also wanted a City Beautiful central library, and they staged a competition that was semi-rigged to be won by Cass Gilbert and basically copy the St. Louis public library. However, Gilbert’s design for Detroit emulated the Boston style, while the St. Louis design emulated the New York style, so the two buildings were fairly different in exterior. The library went EXTREMELY over budget, but Carnegie/Bertram allowed the city to make up the difference in cost.

In contrast to central libraries, branch libraries are located in slum neighborhoods and meant to serve the urban poor. However, there is a dichotomy in purpose: Carnegie mistrusted the poor as a group (especially after the Homestead strike in 1892), but wanted individuals to be able to better themselves via learning. The architecture reflected this early on, by having radial book stacks so that the librarian could see anyone accessing them, turnstiles, and limited means of moving through the library whenever possible. However, there was direct access to the books, and a much larger (relatively) children’s room than central libraries would have.

The ambivalence of city officials towards branch libraries allowed librarians to have a lot more power over them; to city officials, the branch libraries were just political bargaining chips - “you get your branch libraries, we get our imposing City Beautiful main library,” and then they didn’t do anything to stop the agenda of librarians from implementing their own ideas at branch libraries. Over time, the radial stacks were also abandoned because they were expensive, and librarians also stopped seeing the working class as the enemy / untrustworthy / etc.

Chapter 4 - Taking: Libraries and Cultural Politics, Part II

In small towns, the struggle was more between the genders than between the classes. Women’s clubs had originally founded libraries in small towns, but for the most part they struggled to fundraise, because women were not permitted to handle finances. Carnegie’s grants were therefore welcomed; there were some tensions because Carnegie had to communicate with elected officials, but for the most part the elected officials were close connections with the members of the women’s clubs (often it was women’s clubs who had initially reached out, though).

In general, men wanted the library to represent the town and increase economic prosperity. An extreme example is Raton, New Mexico, where the library faced a train station at the cost of being inaccessible from the direction facing the town itself. On the other hand, women wanted the library to be a cultural center that distracted single men from saloons and dime novels (immoral behavior). Therefore women wanted libraries to be placed near-ish-but-not-too-near saloons / the town’s commercial district, and somewhat near churches.

Other than location, what was agreed upon, was that men should design the exterior and women should design the interior. Unfortunately, small towns were not well-equipped to actually hire an architect and put plans into motion, and Bertram was unsympathetic to their plight; he also didn’t care for the towns’ desires to evoke church-like architectural vocabulary, either not realizing the cultural importance or realizing it but not caring regardless, and decreased building budgets in an attempt to force towns into more conservative designs; this worked, but only to an extent. Bertram was also unsympathetic to the ways in which small towns’ needs varied from large cities, particularly in their requirements of having multipurpose rooms in libraries. Gainesville, Texas librarian Lillian Gunter may have gotten around this with their library by simply being nonspecific on the library plans, and having multipurpose rooms anyway.

Chapter 5 - Working: The Feminization of Librarianship

While women were seen as necessary contributors to the success of libraries, they were not seen as equal to men. John Cotton Dana in particular was a proponent of this lesser-participant mindset. The very design of the library, with its centrally-located charging desk designed for efficiency, enforced this view: while one might think that a centrally-located position exerted control, actually it made the librarian subject to a constant onslaught of the demands of patrons, without any privacy. Also, the design of the furniture was reminiscent of call centers or other female-dominated professions where women sat stationary at male-designed workstations and performed their duties.

Children’s librarianship changed the status quo in a few ways. First, specialization, especially to the area of children’s librarianship and child psychology, gave female librarians a degree of status. Also, the insights of child psychology adjusted the ideals of how a library should be built. Detroit’s branch libraries in particular deviated from the advice of “Notes on the Erection of Library Bildings,” which somewhat changed the dynamic of the charging desk. Also, librarians physically left the desk altogether to conduct activities like storytime, sometimes even outdoors.

The chapter concludes by summarizing several diary entries from Lillian Gunter, the librarian from Gainesville, Texas. As she became more professional, she began to take a more negative view of women who were in her previous position, volunteering through ladies’ clubs. She recognized the challenges of serving a diverse set of needs in a single library, traveled a lot, and saw architectural shortcomings of the Carnegie building she was working in. While she wanted to provide resources for Black (“Negro”) readers, she was limited by society at the time, and also to an extent her own prejudices. She was certainly not alone, but represented a large class: Herriet Gertrude Eddy, May Dexter Henshall, Mabel Prentiss, and Ann Hadden were other influential women librarians of the time.

Chapter 6 - Reading: The Experiences of Children as Library Users

Little evidence remains, but this chapter attempts to summarize what is available to piece together how children actually took advantage of the “Free to All” libraries that Carnegie constructed, both in small towns and large cities. Did children see these libraries as open for anyone (including themselves)? Did they learn middle-class cultural values? Did they supplement their educations?

For the small-town case, primary sources One Writer’s Beginnings, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, and Ohio Town are used (the second link is to Goodreads because Wikipedia doesn’t have a page for the book). The common thread between all of the memoirs is that the women who wrote them remember as girls being frightened of the librarians who ran the libraries. Two of the three got over their fears and began to admire the librarians, but the third didn’t. And of course these are girls who went on to write memoirs, so we have a clear selection bias here.

In large cities, “progressive-era reformers were prolific chroniclers of their own activities” (p. 210), so there is some evidence of what was attempted at least. The libraries were certainly used by children, and they wanted books, so much so that the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library used the police to help with crowd control to admit children only one at a time and ensure they’d line up (p. 211). Children saw the library as a safer, better-climate-controlled space than their tenement housing or the streets, and they turned it into a place that they felt ownership of. While a modern lens may view giving kids a space/place that they felt safe as a success, the Progressive view of the time saw this as a failure; kids were not learning the middle-class values or seeing the library as the domestic space as intended by Carnegie.


This book doesn’t touch very much on racism in the public library; books I’ve seen recommended for this topic are Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow and The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism - as of publication of this post, I’m about two chapters into reading the second, and I bought the first also but haven’t started it yet. Other than that, it’s a great history of the early American public library.

My connection to wiki/website development will be that your physical (or ethereal) design broadcasts your intentionality, whether you like it or not. If you want to have information-first values, but you prioritize looking pretty (and by pretty I literally mean pretty, not usable - usability should always come first!), your users will get an impression that maybe you care about appearances over making information as convenient as possible. Always make sure you’re providing enough whitespace that users can breathe, but consider what we can infer about the beliefs of an architect’s about their patrons’ ideal relationship to books when designing a library. Are you sure you want that cute image above the fold, instead of a useful piece of information?

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River is a developer most at home in MediaWiki and known for building Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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