The libraries’ shared heritage isn’t defined by a common location. They are linked by an era of history, some design elements and the notion that people with the right resources can improve their lives.
That’s what Andrew Carnegie thought, anyway.
The Scottish immigrant embodied that through his own rags-to-riches story, then spread some of those riches around in places such as Tacoma, Olympia and Vancouver, Wash.
During 31 years, the steel magnate’s millions funded almost 1,700 libraries in the United States – including 41 in Washington.
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Now, a century or so later, 20 of those sites in Washington are teaming up to celebrate their common heritage.
The Clark County Historical Museum – housed in a former Carnegie library – is heading up “Mr. Carnegie’s Grand Tour of Washington.”
The tour is designed as a theme for family road trips and to bring visitors to heritage sites around the state.
The tour stems from the creation of the Carnegie Library Consortium of Washington, a special initiative of the museum. The group’s mission is to identify Washington’s surviving Carnegie libraries, built with funds from the 19th-century industrialist, and raise awareness of the buildings in order to preserve them.
“The consortium is something I’ve wanted to do for a few years,” said Susan Tissot, the museum’s executive director. “The public doesn’t realize the value of these buildings.”
The time seemed right because the museum just celebrated the 100th birthday of its building.
Tissot said the tour concept resulted from a discussion among her, museum staff member Lisa Christopher and volunteer Pepper Kim, a teacher at Evergreen’s Legacy High School.
Kim teamed with museum board president Joan Dengerink to produce a children’s book based on the tour. Jane Leonard, a graphic artist, volunteered to design materials, including a tour “passport” that can be stamped at participating sites.
The museum moved into the former library 45 years ago. But another Vancouver-based agency includes a Carnegie building still serving its original purpose. The Goldendale Community Library is part of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District.
“I absolutely love working in this building, to feel the history while working here,” said Goldendale librarian Naomi Fisher.
It’s been renovated and expanded, but bricks and other original elements are all around.
“We still have the 1914 oak shelving,” Fisher said. “The library still owns the copy of the original minutes of the 1912 founding, when the Women’s Federation of Goldendale got the Carnegie grant.”
The roots of the Vancouver building date to 1908, when Edgar Swan asked the Carnegie Corporation for $10,000 to build a permanent home for a city library that had bounced around several sites.
“The money only provided the building,” Tissot said. Brick maker L.M. Hidden donated the land, “and the city had to agree to tax itself 10 percent (of the grant) a year for operating expenses and books.”
Not every city was willing to do that, by the way.
There was no basic Carnegie blueprint, but visitors can see some common elements.
“None of them were made of wood,” said Christopher, visitor services coordinator at the Clark County museum. “All are brick or sandstone, pillars of the community, so they would do the most good for the longest time.”
Other common features include a 13-step staircase leading to the front door and lamps on each side of the entrance.
“He liked the symbolism of ascending into a place of knowledge,” said Fisher. “And the lamps, again, symbolize the light of knowledge.”
The basements have high ceilings. So do the main floors, illuminated by tall windows that start where the 6-foot-high bookcases end.
Tacoma had the first Carnegie library in the state in 1903, and it’s still a visible part of the current main branch.
The city’s grant was worth $75,000, said Jody Gripp, who works in special collections in Tacoma.
“Ours is a little more opulent, with a Vermont marble staircase, intricate columns and fancy lighting,” Gripp said. “There was quite the controversy when they bought some pink brick from Seattle. Some people felt they shouldn’t be going to Seattle for building material.”
“Public libraries reflect the culture that creates them,” said Camas architect Eric Lanciault. “The 1909 library was a grab bag of architectural styles and aesthetics. Certain pieces of ornamentations could be ordered from a catalog. An architect would create a collage of styles, which happened a lot at the turn of century.
“America was weaning itself from Europe, but the architects had been trained in Europe and all the styles were European. We were going from being a colonial and postcolonial culture to an American culture.”
The designs got a little too haphazard for the Carnegie organization.
“Carnegie’s secretary had seen so many bad designs that he formulated a how-to book. That handbook filled a void, since the public library was a new entity,” said Lanciault, who discussed Carnegie libraries recently at a museum program. “It was a foundation for library design for 40 years.”