Thank you Mr. Carnegie


Yesterday economist Paul Krugman published a few short, personal paragraphs on his blog, about the many local libraries he'd had reason to visit over the past few weeks. His paragraphs drew 171 comments, most of them praising their local institutions or remembering the Carnegie Libraries of their childhood.

Naturally, it brought to mind my own experiences. Our little town of 3,000 had a Carnegie library, and when I was growing up I spent many hours under its roof, seeking escape from teenage angst and wandering the stacks that stood behind four tall mahogany pillars that squared the center of the room.

Modern libraries—now threatened by continual cost cutting—are accommodating and brightly lit, with rows of computers, WiFi, DVDs, and bright, cheerful displays of current best sellers. Our Carnegie was nothing like that. Built in the Classical Revival "temple style," it had large windows, but felt cool and dark inside. It was always deadly quiet. There were no electronic devices, of course, and "modernism" is not a word I connect even remotely with that building. But surely the most recent issues of the Saturday Evening Post or Look lay stacked on a table.

I entered each time not knowing what I was looking for; my fingers ran along the spines until intuition stopped me, and using that method I found many wonderful books. That was how I discovered America's Winston Churchill and his three historical novels, Richard Carvel (1899), about the revolutionary war; The Crossing (1904) covering the move west, and The Crisis (1901), which takes place during the Civil War. I carried around a beat-up version of Richard Carvel for years before it began losing pages and I gave up on it.

A few years ago, at a book sale in the Monmouth, Oregon library I came across all three books, in excellent condition despite their age, and promptly bought them. They are of the romantic period of novel writing, but despite their archaic language and happy endings I find them eminently readable. Since I am one who loves rereading favorite books I plan to keep these until I die.

Our Carnegie library was funded with $10,000 in 1910 by a man who would certainly never visit it, or even know that it had been built in his name. My mother often shared memories of "her" Carnegie library, in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It was a much grander building, built in 1902 with two stories and a domed rotunda. Like me she found solace and inspiration there.

Andrew Carnegie donated $56,000,000 to build 2,811 libraries worldwide. His generosity, for whatever reason, surely added greatly to the happiness and education of the American public. I find it hard to imagine a gift that could today affect our national consciousness and character in the way those libraries did. I thank Mr. Carnegie, and I thank Mr. Krugman for reminding me of that remarkable gift.