A hundred years ago this month, the City of Puyallup dedicated its first public library building, funded — as were so many libraries at that time — by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. When that building opened, the library became an official city department.
The tradition of public-lending libraries cannot be said to be an entirely American invention, as libraries open to the public certainly existed in other countries prior to the founding of the United States.
However, more often than not, those libraries were operated on a subscription or membership basis. Many libraries, even if open to the public, had closed stacks, and materials could not be taken from the building.
The institution of free, tax-supported public libraries gained traction in America primarily because of Carnegie’s philanthropy. Carnegie’s libraries combined the idea of the library as a temple of knowledge, along with the very American and democratic idea of free service to all citizens.
The Carnegie buildings were designed to encourage communication with library staff. Carnegie libraries also eliminated closed stacks, allowing people to browse the shelves and choose books on their own.
During a speech in 1914, Carnegie said libraries are “the best kind of philanthropy I can think of and I’m willing to stand on that record.”
Writing in 1889, Carnegie asked the question, “What is the best gift which can be given to a community?” His answer was that “a free library occupies the first place, provided the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution.”
Carnegie’s childhood experience spurred his desire to fund the building of public libraries. As a child, he exchanged books once a week at the house of a local man who opened a personal lending library for boys.
Of that experience, Carnegie wrote, “No one but he who has felt it can know the intense longing with which the arrival of Saturday was awaited, that a new book might be had.”
He went on to say that he resolved, “If ever wealth came to me, that it should be used to establish free libraries.”
In all, Carnegie’s foundation financed the building of nearly 1,700 public libraries in the United States alone.
In my career, I have encountered individuals from countries where, to this day, there is not a strong tradition of public library service.
I once worked for a library system with a very remote branch in a tiny rural agricultural community. There, I saw mothers waiting outside the library while their children went in to select books and used the computers. I later learned those women were not going into the library because they felt they needed permission. I later met with this group and made sure they knew they had permission, and I explained the concept of the public library to them.
That experience gave me a strong appreciation for the idea and tradition of public library service championed by Andrew Carnegie.
I want to thank the Citizens of Puyallup for the beautiful city library building that carries on the spirit of what Carnegie was trying to achieve.Tim Wadham is the director of the Puyallup Public Library. He can be reached at 253-841-5452 or by email at email@example.com.