Carnegie's Library Legacy

“There Is Not Such A Cradle Of Democracy On Earth As The Free Public Library.” — Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie and the foundation he created in 1911, Carnegie Corporation of New York, have funded the construction of 2,509 libraries over the past century, 1,681 of which were built in the United States. His first library was a gift, in 1881, to his birthplace, Dunfermline, Scotland. In 1899 Carnegie donated more than five million dollars to New York City for the creation of their branch libraries. These efforts have, in recent weeks, garnered new attention in the press.

Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

In Carnegie’s Gift: The Progressive Era Roots of Today’s Branch Library, Yael Friedman explores how one branch, the Eastern Parkway Library in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, exemplifies Carnegie’s desire to “promote the advancement of knowledge,” while Kriston Capps writes of the importance of public libraries as a centerpiece of the urban landscape on The Atlantic’s blog CityLab.

But not all the news is positive.  A recent report, Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries, funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, found that the average branch library today in New York City is 61-years-old, and many lack funding for proper maintenance. The layout of branch libraries often do not meet the needs of today’s patrons, armed with laptops and mobile devices, says the report, and most library branches are too small to handle the increase of demand for today’s users. One exception is Harlem’s 125th St. Library, which recently reopened its doors after a $1.3 million renovation to upgrade its infrastructure.

Harlem 125th street Public Library
Harlem 125th street Public Library | Photo by Jan Ransom / New York Daily News

To address these challenges, The Architectural League in collaboration with the Center for an Urban Future created a design study to envision the future possibilities for New York City’s branch libraries. “The challenges that branch libraries face include enabling access to the burgeoning resources of the digital world while continuing to circulate books and other print resources; enhancing capacity to serve as physical and civic hubs of their communities; and accommodating the full range of programs they offer, from adult literacy and ESL to after-school programs for children and teens and technology training for senior citizens,” the authors write in their Request for Qualifications.

Their goal is to continue the legacy Andrew Carnegie established of making information accessible to all citizens well into the twenty-first century.