Architects, Librarians and Carnegie Libraries

Fairfield LibraryDenver LibraryPaw Paw Library

    On Saturday, June 27, 2020, the Village of Paw Paw and Paw Paw District Library will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Paw Paw District Library and the Paw Paw Carnegie Center.
    The “Modern Library Movement” began almost simultaneously in England with the Public Libraries Act of 1850, and the United States with the formation of the American Library Association in 1876.  These movements impacted the design of library buildings from the mid- to late-19th century.
    In the early 19th century, library design was influenced by designs that dated back to 16th century Europe monastic libraries.  Library buildings most often had long, narrow hallways with “book alcoves”, and long windows above the books in the alcoves for light.  These libraries made access to books and materials difficult as well as resulting damage due to the difficulty in maintaining a constant temperature.
    Early public libraries in the United States were often funded by a benefactor who expected a monument to their generosity.  As a result, visual impact often took precedence over requirements of library administration.  In the mid-19th century, these libraries were built using the Romanesque style made popular by Henry Robson Richardson (1836-1880).
    The Romanesque style (1860-1880) was the most common American library “type” in the early years.  Libraries built in this style had massive masonry walls of rough faced dark reddish stone, round arches over deeply recessed windows and entrances, massive porch columns, towers with conical roofs, and facades that were usually asymmetrical.  In the first years of the Carnegie grant program, several libraries, including the very first of the grant libraries in Fairfield, Iowa, were built in the Roman-esque style.  
    The Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as “the Great White Way”, held in Chicago in 1893, created a demand for buildings in the Beaux Arts style (1885-1930).  The architect, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) is often associated with this style.  Beaux Art buildings were modeled on Imperial Roman Architecture, with white marble masonry walls, a symmetrical façade, and sculptured, decorative details such as garlands, floral patterns or shields. The most distinctive element of a Beaux Arts building is a row of evenly matched Ionic or Corinthian columns extending along the façade.  The Denver Public Library was built in the Beaux Arts style.

    These elaborate library buildings were possible because in the beginning years of the Carnegie grant program because the grants had no design requirements, and no standards for the amount of a grant to each library.  Carnegie and his secretary James Bertram soon learned that this led to “architectural excess at the expense of function.”
    By 1908, the Carnegie library program had been in existence for eight years, and James Bertram, Carnegie’s personal secretary, by now in sole charge of administering the program had begun to form personal convictions about library design.  Carnegie ceased funding large central libraries in urban areas, the sort of large, elaborate libraries cherished by the elite as a means of preserving their culture.  They did not fit his vison of giving access to learning to the common man.  
    Bertram had concluded that most architects placed more emphasis on design rather than function, and that cost overruns were the result of inefficient planning.  He felt that money spent on non-essential decorative elements like columns, pediments, and cupolas did not add to efficiency and therefore, not necessary.
    Bertram strove to make this new form of philanthropy run like a business and created policies for everything, no matter how insignificant. In 1911, Bertram compiled his collective wisdom on progressive library planning into a pamphlet entitled, “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings.”  Bertram’s adherence to policy and procedure taught many small communities to operate within a strict definition of a public library.
    According to Bertram, the ideal Carnegie library was a one-story, rectangular building with a small vestibule leading directly into a single large room.  Notes contained six basic plans for small libraries.  Notes did not have any recommendations for exterior elements.  The result of libraries using one of these plans was fundamental changes in the way that people experienced the library.
    Under the leadership of Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), the American Library Association was founded at a conference in Philadelphia in 1876.  The formation of this professional organization provided national visibility and recognition for librarians.  In 1876, there were 188 public libraries.  
    The American Library Association renounced the physical layout of libraries designed by architects.  The ALA felt that architects did not design “practical” layouts for libraries and were more concerned with visual “effects”.  The goal of the ALA was to bring readers and books together, which meant open shelves.
    John Cotton Dana (1856-1929), was an American library and museum director.  Throughout his 40 years in the profession, he sought to make these cultural institutions relevant to the daily lives of citizens.  Dana also argued that substantial decrease in the cost of a book made the conventional definition of the library as “simply a storehouse of treasures” obsolete, and advocated for direct public access to books. In 1902, 68 percent of public libraries maintained closed stacks.  
    A fundamental change in the way libraries were designed and functioned were the accommodation made for women and children.  Until the turn of the century, there were separate reading rooms for men and women, and children’s rooms had not been considered at all in library design.  A survey done circa 1890 of 126 public libraries revealed that 10 percent maintained a threshold of 12 years; by the turn of the century, most librarians regarded a separate children’s room as a necessary component of a public library.
    Professionalism of the library role was a 19th century development, and another fundamental change in libraries.  The Carnegie library program created growth in the sheer number of public libraries, and a need for librarians.  In the 1800’s, librarians were most often men, called “bookmen”; but need for librarians offered an employment opportunity for women.  It was thought that librarianship was a role “eminently suited to girls and women”.  By 1920, men and women were equally numerous as professional librarians.  
    James Bertram’s Notes on small libraries published in 1911, also fundamentally changed the way that people experienced a library.  The six plans he advocated all contained a single large room that provided a reading area for both adults and children.  The librarian was at the center of all activities at “her” post at the delivery desk.
    While Notes would continue to guide interior library design for small communities, the exterior elements were left to library boards and the architect hired for the project.  Virtually all the exteriors of Carnegie libraries are unique; reflecting the choice of these local building committees.  
    The most popular style chosen by Carnegie libraries was Classic Revival.  Four hundred ninety Carnegie libraries chose elements from the Classic Revival style. A temple with columns topped with a pediment was a visual image that captured the national spirit, and an image that was also echoed in other civic and commercial building such as banks at the turn of the century.  Classical Revival was chosen because it represented American democracy, opportunity, education, and freedom, all important themes in public library development.  A Carnegie library should be a significant community landmark.  
    The last Carnegie library grant was given in 1919, to the town of American Fork, Utah.  Paw Paw received its grant in 1917, but construction was delayed because of WWI.  Paw Paw Public Library opened in 1920, and was one of the last, if not the very last, Carnegie Library constructed in the United States.
    Clare Allen, who had been the architect for the County Courthouse in 1901, was chosen as the architect for the Paw Paw Carnegie library.  The floorplan for the library was Plan C for small libraries from James Bertram’s Notes; a “building devoted exclusively to (main floor) housing of books...; comfortable accommodation for reading them by adults and children; (basement) lecture room, necessary accommodation for heating plant; also all conveniences for the library patrons and staff.”
    Many Carnegie libraries have elements from different architectural styles.  Paw Paw Public Library has exterior elements from Classic Revival at the front entrance with columns and a pediment and from Italian Renaissance with its large, pared windows with a semi-circular arch above. Classic Revival was chosen to match the County Courthouse which also has a Classic Revival pediment over its front door and an Italian Renaissance clock tower.  
    There were 61 Carnegie libraries built in Michigan, all but eight are still standing. Though several used one of the small library plans from Bertram’s Notes, their exteriors mix architectural styles or elements from Romanesque, Beaux Arts, and Classical to make each one unique.  

(Information for this article came from Carnegie Libraries Across America: a Public Legacy by Theodore James; Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture 1890-1920 by Abigail A. Van Slyck; A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAllester; and “Modern Library Buildings” from Architectural Review, 1902.  Martha Deming Maytnier, Local History Librarian, Paw Paw District Library)

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
(269) 657-5080

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