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University checking out Carnegie library history
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University checking out Carnegie library history

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HJ - Standard Carnegie Art Museum

A project launched at the University of Iowa to chart the history of Carnegie libraries in the state features material that has been collected about the original library in Clarinda.

“What we’re working to do is preserve documents that were involved in the acquisition of each community’s library,” said Shana L. Stuart during a program Thursday, April 11, at the Lied Public Library in Clarinda. She is the director of the Carnegie Libraries in Iowa Project (CLIP).

The material related to the Clarinda library -- images, correspondence, utility bills, published accounts and statistical data -- has been digitized to create a database that can be accessed online by researchers or anyone interested in how the library was established. Similar information has been compiled about dozens of other Carnegie libraries.

Between 1892 and 1919, industrialist Andrew Carnegie and his corporation provided grants for 1,689 public library buildings in 1,412 American communities at a cost of $41,478,689. In Iowa, 101 were built with money from Carnegie, including the one in Clarinda.

“It was just community impetus that allowed you to get a grant,” Stuart said. “There was no program, no restrictions put on by the Carnegie corporation. It was purely individual communities writing and asking for money.”

To be considered eligible for a grant, a town had to demonstrate a need, but, Stuart said, that often meant only “stating that you were having problems raising funds” and could benefit from having another source of financing.

Assistance from a city’s governing body was required, however. This had to be in the form of “a resolution from the city council saying [they] will support the library at 10 percent” of what the grant amount was, Stuart said. A council would then vote to implement a yearly tax levy to guarantee permanent long-term revenue.

A community also was required to provide a site for the library. “It had to be large enough to put the building on, and to handle future expansion,” Stuart said.

In Clarinda, the location chosen was at the corner of North 16th and West Chestnut streets. The land was donated by G.W. Richardson.

After an application for funds was submitted, an initial grant of $10,000 was approved in February of 1907. A month later, another $5,000 was sought, but this request was turned down.

William Orr, a Clarinda attorney, then began corresponding with Carnegie’s representatives, saying additional money was needed to cover higher than expected costs. In January of 1908, a $5,000 grant was approved. Construction proceeded, and the library opened on April 15, 1909.

The building was designed by a Clarinda architect, W.W. Welch, who was selected by local officials overseeing the project.

“That was very atypical,” Stuart said. “Hardly any communities across the state utilized a ‘same town’ architect.”

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At the program, Stuart displayed scanned photos of the library’s exterior and interior.

Stuart said Welch “had experience designing buildings, but he didn’t have any other experience designing libraries, and apparently he didn’t look all that closely at other plans.”

Referring to a photo of the outside of the structure, she said: “Notice how low all the windows are. There’s really not that much space for your bookshelves. Many other libraries would have much higher windows so you could have five or six feet of bookshelves. Other architects would have space between the windows so you could run bookshelves perpendicularly.”

A photo of the inside of the library showed several tall pillars positioned near the front counter. “These are impressive, but they don’t add to the square footage available,” Stuart said.

The library, she said, “was a beautiful building, but not as practical as it could have been. On the other hand, he did build something that has lasted more than a hundred years.”

Stuart said she made an observation after viewing some of the archival Clarinda library material that has been digitized.

“What’s interesting about Clarinda is that you had a lot of church ministers and reverends who were on your initial board of directors,” she said. “I haven’t seen that many in any other community. It seems to have been the criteria here.”

Stuart said some people have the misconception that all Carnegie libraries are similar in appearance.

“That isn’t the case,” she said, showing images of buildings in several Iowa towns. “All kinds of different styles were utilized. Some had more than one style on the same building.”

The cities and towns that sought grants “were looking to establish themselves as centers of learning, as growing, thriving communities, which was why they were interested in the grants and the acquisition of the buildings,” Stuart said.

The Carnegie library in Clarinda remained in operation until 2004, when the Lied Public Library opened. Karen and Robert Duncan purchased the original building, then renovated it to create the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum.

Along with the structure in Clarinda, 44 other Carnegie buildings still exist but are no longer used as libraries.

There are 48 Carnegie buildings still in use as libraries. Nearby ones are in Bedford, Glenwood, Hamburg, Malvern, Mount Ayr, Red Oak, Shenandoah and Villisca.

The CLIP Internet location is https://dsps.lib.uiowa.edu/clip/

Stuart said that on the site there is a “Memories” tab that opens a form on which people can contribute recollections and comments about their experiences at a Carnegie library.

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