Carnegie libraries still a feature in Illinois towns
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In the fall of 1909, the Library Board of Pana contacted Andrew Carnegie, a philanthropist, who was establishing libraries around the United States, for assistance in building the Pana library. His qualifications had not been met, so in 1910, Warren Penwell tried to negotiate with Carnegie again. Mr. Carnegie agreed to provide funds, if the City of Pana would promise to financially support the library. Mr. Carnegie donated $14,000.00, Mr. Henry N. Schuyler donated the land. The present building at 303 East Second Street, was completed, December 1912 and an Open House was January 14th, 1913, with over 300 in attendance.
For decades, a central feature of over a hundred Illinois communities was the Carnegie Library, the gift of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie around the turn of the 20th century. Though declining in number, dozens still exist today.
Some 105 Carnegie public libraries were constructed in Illinois, trailing only Indiana and California. Taylorville and Pana were among the beneficiaries, and Pana is still using its library today, over a century later.
Though he is lambasted today for his harsh treatment of workers and his unyielding lust for money and power, Carnegie, a native Scotsman, is remembered for his interest in library buildings. Some 1,412 communities nationwide used Carnegie funds to build libraries between 1889- 1923, and 108 academic library buildings were also constructed with Carnegie donations, though they are usually mispronounced today. Commonly called “CAR- neg-ee,” the actual pronuncia- tion is “car-NEGG-ee.”
In all, Carnegie spent over $56.1 million to erect 2,509 library buildings in English- speaking countries. Applicants normally wrote to Carnegie through his secretary, James Bertram, who sometimes responded in less than cordial terms.
Carnegie’s donations came with caveats. The community was required to provide suitable land, and formally agree to sup- port the library with local taxation. As he did in other charitable endeavors, he was more inclined to “help those who helped themselves.”
In Christian County, Pana community leader J. W. Kitchell was turned down twice for Carnegie grants, finally receiving an abrupt brush-off from Bertram. But another effort by Pana leaders was made, and resulted in a gift of $14,000. Mayor and leading citizen Henry Schuyler donated the land, and the Pana Carnegie-Schuyler Library was dedicated in January 1913 at 303 East Second Street.
Nearby, Taylorville’s Carnegie Library was dedicated on Dec. 20, 1904, the result of a $14,000 grant. Designed by Patton and Miller, a Chicago firm that created numerous Carnegies across Illinois, the library building, at 222 W. Market, has been replaced by a newer, larger facility and is now home to the DePaepe Law Office.
Barbara Love was named director of the Kewanee Public Library, a Carnegie facility in northwestern Illinois, in December 2016 after serving in a similar role in another Carnegie library, at Farmington in northeastern Fulton County. She notes the special needs of housing a library in such older surroundings.
“Carnegie libraries were built in a much different way than libraries of today,” said Love, who joined the staff at Kewanee in 2015. “They have high ceilings, and aren’t as energy-efficient as new buildings. As a result, you really have to look for little ways to increase your energy efficiency.”
Many smaller Carnegie libraries also have floor plans that are best described as “chopped-up,” a contrast to the open floor design that domi- nates most newer libraries today. Space is also a severe issue in the Carnegies today, as libraries struggle to keep up with growing collections, increasing technology, and a need for public meeting areas.
“A lot of Carnegie libraries are landlocked,” remarked Love, who has worked in four Carnegie libraries in her career. “They don’t have room to expand, and they don’t have enough parking. Accessibility is also a real issue at a lot of Carnegie buildings, because they weren’t built with the handicapped in mind.”
In 1991, some 83 communities in Illinois were still using Carnegie libraries, a number that has since dropped by over 20 with the advent of new build- ings, such as in Litchfield and Taylorville. In Love’s former hometown of Farmington, the Carnegie library was replaced after 107 years with a beautiful new facility on the east edge of town in 2014.
Sadly, some Carnegie libraries meet a less glorious end. The Carnegie facility in Galesburg, which opened in 1902, was wiped out in a fire on May 9, 1958 that ranks among the worst library disasters in state history. A new library was dedi- cated on the same site at 40 East Simmons Street in November 1961.
Though some are being phased out, there is plenty of sentimental attachment to the old Carnegie libraries. “It is a very hard decision to leave a Carnegie library,” said Love. “There’s nothing easy about it. But in many cases, it’s less expensive to build a new build- ing than it is to renovate the older one.”
In Morris, the Carnegie library was demolished in 1969, but not without regret. That library’s director wrote in 1982 that “to this day there are many resi- dents angry about its demolition.” Similar sentiments still linger in Decatur, where a 2015 account noted that the demoli- tion of the Carnegie library in 1972 “is still a sore subject for many.”
Others fondly recall the memories of the library staff in the Carnegies. In Farmington, Miss Minta Schoonover became the head librarian in 1917 at age 48 and remained in the position for fifty years, retiring at the age of 98. She was then a regular patron until her death at 106.