Iowa Carnegie Public Libraries

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In 1892, Fairfield, Iowa, received a grant from Andrew Carnegie for $40,000 to build a public library. The significance of Carnegie's gift to Fairfield was three-fold. The gift was 1) Carnegie's first grant to a community he had never visited, 2) it was Carnegie's first gift for a library west of Allegheny City (Pittsburgh), and 3) it was the gift that essentially launched Carnegie's unnamed and unadvertised library program, a program that provided only library buildings. Between 1892 and 1917, Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation provided grants for 1689 public library buildings in 1419 American communities at a cost of $41,478,689.1 According to Carnegie's requirements, each community was required to provide a site for the building, and it was to tax itself yearly at a tenth of his grant.2 Every state except Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Alaska received at least one grant from Carnegie.3

The state of Iowa was perfectly positioned to take full advantage of Carnegie's generosity. In 1873, Iowa had become the 10th state to enact legislation that allowed towns to establish and maintain public libraries through taxation.4 In 1894, the state had granted partial suffrage to women allowing them to vote on "yes" and "no" issues such as the establishment of a public library.5 By 1900, the Code of Iowa provided governance for the public libraries as well as the establishment of the Iowa Library Commission which was responsible for encouraging library growth across the state.6

For communities across Iowa, Carnegie's gift to Fairfield provided a powerful incentive to acquire a similar cultural landmark. Often led by the women's organizations, 104 Iowa communities applied for grants from Carnegie; 5 towns eventually chose not to accept their grants.7 However, the other 99 communities accepted their Carnegie grants to build 101 public libraries (Waterloo received money for 2 libraries, and Sioux City received money for a main library and a branch). By any measure, the participation of the Iowa communities in the Carnegie program was remarkable: Iowa ranked 4th in the number of grants received, Iowa ranked 6th in the number of libraries built, and Carnegie's gifts of $1,495,706 for the 101 Iowa public libraries had it ranked 8th in terms of funding.8 These rankings are also made significant by the fact that Iowa's population in 1910 numbered 2,224,771 when contrasted with 1st ranked Indiana (2,700,876), 2nd ranked California (2,377,549), and 3rd ranked Illinois (5,638,591).9 Additionally, 7 Iowa colleges and universities received funding to build academic libraries between 1901 and 1906.10

In Iowa, the years between Carnegie's grants from 1892 to 1917, were a period of remarkable library expansion. In 1903, at the first publication of the State Library Commission, Iowa had 77 public libraries, and Carnegie had provided grants for the buildings in only 44 of those communities.11 By 1918, there were 136 public libraries, and Carnegie funds had provided the 97 buildings for those communities.12 Interestingly, the distribution of the public libraries across the state was not systematic or comprehensive. In June of 1920, there were still 10 county seats without a public library, and 5 counties were without a library altogether, although there were 20 counties that had received 2 or more Carnegie grants.

The uneven distribution of Carnegie libraries across the state demonstrates that Iowa communities took the initiative to pursue the Carnegie funds individually. In almost every situation, an architect from outside the community was hired to design the buildings that were intended to be as modern and stylish as any other being built across the country. The libraries were heralded as symbols of community pride and achievement. This rich cultural heritage continues a century later as so many of the Iowa communities have found ways to celebrate this fascinating historical movement through the preservation of their venerable Carnegie buildings.       

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1 Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997), 3, 130. Jones' numbers are cited as the more current figures but they do differ slightly from those of George Bobinski in Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969). Both men utilized the records held by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Durand R. Miller, Carnegie Grants for Library Buildings, 1890-1917 (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1943), 8-20.

2 Bobinski, 38-45; Jones, 26.

3 Bobinski, 20. At the time of Carnegie's grants, Hawaii and Alaska were not states.

4 Bobinski, 6.

5 Code of Iowa, 1894.

6 Code of Iowa, 1897.

7 Bobinski, 115-142.

8 Bobinski, 16-21.

9 Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910, Vol. 2 Population 1910 Reports by States Alabama-Montana, 1915, California on p.140, Illinois on p.438, Indiana on p.520, and Iowa on p.582.

10 Durand R. Miller, Carnegie Grants for Library Buildings, 1890-1917. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1943, 38-40.

11 Iowa Library Commission. First Report of the Iowa Library Commission. Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1904, 13.

12 Iowa Library Commission. Tenth Report of the Iowa Library Commission. Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1920, 25-26.