“He Left River City the library building  
but he left all the books to her. 
Chaucer, Rabelais, Bal-zac!…” 

Pick-a-Little Talk-a-Little CHEEP! 

From The Music Man by Meredith Wilson 

Because I live in Ashland and work where I do, the song “Pick-a-Little Talk-a-Little” runs through my head a little more frequently than your average human being (which is maybe not too terribly often, but probably more than your average human who has some knowledge of the American musical theater canon). This is because I played in the pit orchestra of The Music Man in high school and know most of the lyrics to most of the songs. (Yes, I know, the connection between these two things needs a bit more explanation… so let me unpack it a bit better for you.) I learned to appreciate musicals as a young person and so I knew the story of Marian the librarian before I knew I wanted to BE a librarian and definitely before I knew the story of Andrew Carnegie. So, whenever someone tells the story of Andrew Carnegie, I listen with a chorus of “cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep” in the background (if you know the song, you can fill in the rhythm & pitch of those cheeps without much difficulty, or you can check out a copy of the Original Broadway Soundtrack from Hoopla here: The Music Man (Original Broadway Cast) Various Artists (1958) – hoopla (hoopladigital.com). Now living in Ashland with so much theater around me (especially now that OSF is reawakening), working in a library—a portion of which is a Carnegie building—the “cheeps” are only getting louder. Because, you see, Carnegie gave cities library buildings and then asked the cities to fill them with books and staff them (not quite the River City model, but close enough to create a semi-annoying earworm for me). I connected River City and Carnegie in my head in library school and couldn’t ever separate them after that. 

Andrew Carnegie was an industrialist and a philanthropist. He was very wealthy and felt that he had a responsibility to use this wealth in ways that benefited society at large. He saw the library that fellow philanthropist Enoch Pratt had built in Baltimore and began building libraries in Pittsburgh. Eventually he expanded to building libraries throughout the world. Towns that received these libraries needed to meet the following conditions:  

  1. Show a need 
  1. Provide a building site 
  1. Pay for staff and the maintenance of the building 
  1. Fund the operations with public funds and not private donations 
  1. Provide 10% of the construction costs to fund the library annually 
  1. Provide free service to all 

That last one is the doozy for me and always will be. He gave so many libraries to so many communities (over 1,600 in the USA alone) that free public libraries BECAME the norm, but they weren’t before Andrew Carnegie. 

Those who spend time in Ashland have probably noticed the Carnegie building there. It’s at the intersection of Gresham and Siskiyou and has “LIBRARY” and “1912” on the front. The Carnegie portion is now the children’s space. Up until 2002, library users still entered through that grand main entrance, and that space that is now children’s was the whole library. We are very lucky to have gotten an expansion in 2002. Knowing how busy our big space is now, I can’t imagine the same number of people coming through the children’s space today. The answer is: they probably didn’t, even though Ashland hasn’t grown significantly in the intervening 20 years. When libraries are big welcoming places that people want to hang out, then people decide to hang out in them. It’s a pretty easy formula for library success. We might not have ever figured that out without our friend, Mr. Carnegie. 

Two important things to note about Carnegie’s libraries: 

The requirement that the community “provide free services to all” was interpreted differently in different parts of the country. That means that some Carnegie libraries did not allow the members of their community who were African American to use them. Was this discussed during Carnegie’s time? Yes, it was. Could Andrew Carnegie have used his platform to do more to integrate public libraries in the country? Again, yes, he could have. He did not… but he did do something that wasn’t nothing. To wit, when the Atlanta Carnegie Library was being built, W.E.B. DuBois pointed out that a third of Atlanta’s population was going to be denied service due to their race when the space opened and that this was not only in conflict with the stated purpose of a library that is to provide “free services to all,” but also completely unfair to Atlanta’s Black tax payers, whose taxes were going to support the operations of a library they could not enter. You can actually see a scanned copy of a petition that circulated at that time in Atlanta from the W.E.B. DuBois Papers Collection at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. While Carnegie did not participate in fixing the structural problem DuBois pointed out in 1902, he did fund the building of the first libraries in the segregated south that were accessible to and staffed by African Americans (the first one was built in Louisville in 1905). Carnegie did try to give one to Atlanta in 1904. The board chose not to move forward at that time with the additional building, but a public library accessible to Atlanta’s black citizens finally did open to the public—in 1921. Modern readers will note that nearly twenty years of paying for library services without receiving any was something that the African American residents of Atlanta had every right to be aggrieved about. Libraries recognize that they have not always been on the right side of history, and this is one example. Our national professional organization, the American Library Association, has made clear statements about the need for libraries to recognize this complicity and do better to be inclusive moving forward.

Because Carnegie’s libraries were built prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it will come as no surprise that many of these buildings needed to be retrofitted in order to truly be accessible to all, even after they were fully integrated. You can see this most clearly locally when you look around the Ashland Library grounds and see all the labyrinthine pathways that allow those who use wheelchairs to access the facility (though in conversations I’ve had with individuals who use wheelchairs, these ramps are really only accessible for those who have motorized wheelchairs because THOSE RAMPS ARE LONG). Libraries continue to explore ways in which they can be truly accessible to everyone living in their service areas. 

The Carnegie building at my prior employer in Columbus, Ohio has the words “OPEN TO ALL” inscribed over the entrance. Entering through that door always felt a bit like going to church to my librarian’s heart. The buildings themselves tend to be pretty recognizable to those in the know and stand as monuments to Carnegie’s philanthropy, even when they are no longer used as library buildings (You can find one of these at 413 W. Main Street in Medford), but the idea of free public libraries truly open to (almost) everyone, that’s the legacy of Andrew Carnegie in public libraries. And here we can apply Ranganathan’s Fifth Law (“a library is a growing organism”) and say that we are only going to continue to do more work to serve all of those within our communities as an extension of this legacy. 

As for that line from The Music Man that expresses the horror of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn and her friends in River City about Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac… I’ll be getting to that soon. Pick-a-Little Talk-a-Little Cheep!