A framed roster of Sullivan County men who served in the Civil War hangs on the north wall of the Merom Public Library.
Just as it has for the past 94 years.
The wooden vestibule at the entrance also stands unchanged since Sept. 1, 1918 — the day the building opened in this tiny town on the Wabash River. Most of the tables, chairs and bookcases are original, too.
The only hint of the passing of a century lies in the basement. Now dim and used for book storage, the stone-walled bottom room was once used for town meetings and voting in elections. Today, kids in Merom scurry in the basement door to get a quick drink from the water fountain inside.
All of those activities would probably please Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel tycoon and philanthropist who paid for the construction of the Merom Public Library, and 1,688 others across the United States between 1889 and 1929. “It’s more than books. He wanted [the libraries] to be a feature of the town,” said Merom branch librarian Paula Adler, “and this building has served that purpose.”
As National Library Week begins today, the precise number of Carnegie libraries still in existence is not known. In the 1996 book, “Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy,” author Theodore Jones counted 772 functioning as libraries. Another 350 Carnegies had begun second and third lives as community centers or school annexes. Nearly 1 in 6 had been demolished by 1996, the book reported.
The fact that the Wabash Valley is home to six surviving Carnegie libraries is no fluke. Carnegie funded more libraries in Indiana than in any other state — either 165 or 164, depending which source of information is used.
Neighboring Illinois received the third-most Carnegies, at 105. Today, those century-old public libraries still operate in the Indiana towns of Brazil (opened in 1904), Sullivan (1905), Clinton (1911), Rockville (1916) and Merom (1918), and in the Edgar County, Ill., town of Paris (1904). Most have undergone additions to add space and accommodate disabled patrons, as required by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Those alterations are subtle and typically do not obscure the original architecture.
“When you look at a Carnegie, you know it’s a Carnegie,” said Cindy Hein, director of the Rockville Public Library. “It’s got a unique style.”
Yet all are different, as well. Carnegie never pushed any particular architectural style. His foundation simply considered applications for grants from towns all over America, and dispensed a funding amount he considered appropriate to the selected communities. The designs were left to the citizens. Still, those styles tend to reflect tastes of the early 20th century, and of particular regions.
Original pieces remain
The striking dome atop the Sullivan Public Library resembles Carnegies in the Illinois towns of Paxton and Greenville, because all three were crafted by the same architect, Paul O. Moratz. At Sullivan, the dome structural format creates distinct round rooms on the upper and lower floors. As with other Indiana and Illinois libraries, the Sullivan Carnegie includes a fireplace.
“It was utilized, back in the day, for heat,” said Donna Adams, who oversees the genealogy and local history collection at Sullivan.
Like most Wabash Valley Carnegies, a framed portrait of Carnegie adorns a wall at Sullivan. A few contain permanent mentions of Carnegie as the benefactor of the structure. The Brazil Public Library facade sports an engraved “C” in its stone. A foundation stone at Clinton is etched with the words, “Gift of Andrew Carnegie 1909.” (That was the year Clinton received its grant.) Otherwise, the elements of the libraries vary from place to place.
Floors in the original portions of the Carnegies creak. That happened as Adams ascended the staircase from lower to upper floor at Sullivan, and walked past an old card catalog cabinet, a relic in the digital 21st century. It still has the metal hooks on each long drawer, designed to hold rows and rows of cards with the title, author and the Dewey Decimal System codes for each book. Sullivan’s collections are all logged into computer databases, as are those at most libraries. The card catalog cabinet now stores a file of the library’s patrons.
The old-school files are dear to the librarians’ hearts, though.
“When I go in a library and see a card catalog, I just want to hug it,” Adams said.
Such an embraceable amenity exists in the Paris library, where children’s books are organized into a card catalog. “We may have one of the few card catalogs still around,” said Paris librarian Teresa Pennington.
That structure also utilizes radiant steam heat. Like Sullivan, Paris’ Carnegie includes a now-retired fireplace. Its eye-catching design features tall windows throughout the library, and massive glass panes fielding sunlight around the entrance. “The windows are huge and lovely. It’s one of the features about the building I love best,” said Pennington, who’s served as librarian for 29 years.
Parking around the Paris library is limited, but much of its clientele arrives from the surrounding neighborhoods. Many patrons trek on foot or by bicycle, said Michelle Frost, Paris’ associate librarian. Free library cards are available to anyone who resides or owns property in the city of Paris.
Free access a goal
Free access to learning for the common man was a primary goal of Carnegie’s landmark library project. In fact, the phrase “Free To The People” is etched on the outside of the Carnegie library in Brazil.
As a poor, young, immigrant boy in Allegheny City, Pa., near Pittsburgh, Carnegie saw a prominent local man, Col. James Anderson, open his personal library to boys in the area. In 1852, Anderson created a broader library, free for use by trade apprentices, explained Glenn Walsh, a Carnegie historian from Pittsburgh. But Andrew, not an apprentice, could not use the facility, and wrote a letter of protest to the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Anderson soon changed the rule.
“At that point, Andrew Carnegie learned the power of the pen,” Walsh said.
Once Carnegie amassed a fortune through his Carnegie Steel Co. (which he later sold to fellow industrialist J.P. Morgan for nearly $500 million in 1901), he turned toward philanthropy and the library initiative. Of course, Carnegie’s generosity remains a historical controversy. The treatment of workers by a man known as a “robber baron” colors his legacy. “Andrew Carnegie was a very complex man,” Walsh said.
Carnegie’s grandfather was “pro-labor,” Walsh pointed out, and Carnegie considered himself to be supportive of workers, too. Yet, many of his own steel workers put in such long, exhausting hours that they had no energy or time to visit the libraries he began building.
Nonetheless, without his coast-to-coast push, many tiny communities and blue-collar cities would have gone library-less for decades.
“If it hadn’t been for Andrew Carnegie, it would’ve been another half-century before towns would get a public library,” Walsh said.
Karen Walker can’t imagine Clinton without one.
“It’s part of our American democracy tradition of free information and learning for all,” said Walker, director at the Clinton Public Library for the past 11 years.
That library has nurtured a bond with kids in Clinton Township, its service base, and the nearby South Vermillion schools. Youngsters flow in after school, walking or riding bikes, skateboards or scooters, said Judy Karanovich, Clinton’s young adult librarian. The growing popularity of young-adult-oriented books, such as the “Hunger Games” trilogy, has adults scanning the shelves in Karanovich’s section.
“We’ll have a grandma in here, looking for a book, and have high-schoolers and middle-schoolers in the same aisle,” Karanovich said. “That’s something you wouldn’t expect to see.”
The libraries’ endurance from generation to generation is exemplified by their building materials — primarily stone and brick.
Little has changed at Merom, which is believed to be the smallest community in America still served by a Carnegie library. The town’s population dwindled to 228 in the 2010 Census from 294 in the 2000 count. Adler, a graduate of the University of Southern Indiana, has been one of those residents her entire life. Despite the shrinking numbers, kids keep the library busy.
“After school, we get bombarded with children,” she said.
The objective set out by Carnegie when he donated $10,000 for that Merom library, and hundreds of others, was to keep those kids learning into adulthood.
Standing beside the front doors of the Carnegie in Paris, Pennington said, “The library is an educational institution, just like a school, except we don’t stop at the 12th grade.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.