Libraries, Carnegie Library, Rochester Public Library

On April 9th, in 1833 America’s first tax-supported public library opened, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Today, there are more than 9,000 public libraries in the United States, including the Peterborough Town Library, which is still going strong.

Continuing with our previous Scottish theme, many libraries built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. More than 2,500 Carnegie libraries were built, between 1883 and 1929, (1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia and New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji). The first of Carnegie’s public libraries opened in his hometown, Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1883. As well as Carnegie’s name, the building displays a motto – “Let there be light” – and a carving of the sun over the entrance. When the last grant was made in 1919, there were 3,500 libraries in the United States, nearly half of them built with construction grants paid by Carnegie.

Books and libraries were an important part of Carnegie’s life, beginning with his childhood in Scotland. There he listened to readings and discussions of books from the Tradesman’s Subscription Library, which his father helped create. Later, in the United States, while working for the local telegraph company in Pennsylvania, Carnegie borrowed books from the personal library of Colonel James Anderson, who opened the collection to his workers every Saturday. In his autobiography, Carnegie credited Anderson with providing an opportunity for “working boys” (that some said should not be “entitled to books”) to acquire the knowledge to improve themselves. Carnegie’s personal experience as an immigrant, who with help from others worked his way into a position of wealth, reinforced his belief in a society based on merit, where anyone who worked hard could become successful. This conviction was a major element of his philosophy of giving in general.

“The Carnegie Formula” required matching contributions from the town that received the donation. The town was required to: demonstrate the need for a public library; provide the building site; annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and, provide free service to all.

The Libraries also created an opportunity for people to browse and discover books on their own. “The Carnegie libraries were important because they had open stacks which encouraged people to browse….People could choose for themselves what books they wanted to read.” Before Carnegie, patrons had to ask a clerk to retrieve books from closed stacks.

While hundreds of the library buildings have been converted into museums, community centers, office buildings and residences, more than half of those in the United States still serve their communities as libraries over a century after their construction. For example, Carnegie libraries still form the nucleus of the New York Public Library system in New York City, with 31 of the original 39 buildings still in operation. Also, the main library and eighteen branches of the Pittsburgh public library system are Carnegie libraries. The public library system there is named the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is located in a former Carnegie library and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

In December 1865, library service began in Rochester, when interested citizens organized the Rochester Library Association. The sum of $1,000 was raised by subscription for the purchase of books, which were housed in the store owned by W.W. Ireland on what was then known as the Haney Block
A catalog of library holdings published in 1881 runs to 35 pages. In 1883 the Library Association was reorganized as the Free Library and Reading Room Association. Entertainments provided the source of income for the library until 1886, when the City Council voted an appropriation of $200 annually for its support.
In 1895 the Rochester Public Library was officially established under a state statute providing for the organization of public libraries. The population of Rochester in 1895 was 6,843.
In 1895 the collection contained 3,318 volumes and an assortment of unbound periodicals. The first Annual Report indicates that circulation in that beginning year of operation was 10,744 volumes. By 1917 the library was providing small collections of books housed in the schools, since at this time there were no school libraries.
The bookmobile finally became a reality on October 24, 1966, when the first vehicle costing $22,418 went into service with a rotating collection of 5,000 volumes.
Today we have nearly 500,000 library materials, with a circulation of over 1.6 million in a town with over 100,000 people.

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.
Lady Bird Johnson


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