When the first Henderson County community library was established in Athens about 100 years ago it actually followed a national trend. After all, about the same time other East Texas towns were doing the same. In Athens the library was first organized and maintained by community service groups like a women’s club, and it was located at first in the courthouse before it moved to other locations. However, other communities might need some extra help to get started.
Also, in the years after 1900 even if East Texas municipalities could erect library buildings they might not have the funds for the books, furniture and other equipment they would need. And so in that case some of these communities applied for a grant that would enable them to establish what became known as Carnegie Libraries.
And several of these buildings are still used – if not as a library – then for other community purposes.
According to the late Bob Bowman, in his East Texas newspaper column from several years ago it was Andrew Carnegie, retired steel magnate, who “helped create a network of public libraries in the early 1900s.” In Texas alone Carnegie provided $645,000 to 31 Texas locations to establish libraries, and so one early source called him the “Santa Claus of Texas libraries.” What was interesting was that to receive a grant, the size of the community was apparently not an issue – since Houston at the time had some 44,600 people and Pecos had a population of just 639. Both got their money.
Let’s look at a few of the original Carnegie libraries that still survive.
Tyler’s Carnegie library is now the home of the Smith County Historical Museum and it houses a variety of materials from the various periods of local history. It’s also the location of murals that were completed in the Depression – painted by a Dallas artist and titled “Industry of Early Texas.”
The former Carnegie library in Palestine is now occupied by offices of the local Chamber of Commerce and with its arched windows across the façade; its interior is largely original.
In Franklin the Carnegie facility, built in 1914, was used as a library for a few years and then was later occupied by classes for the local school system. Marshall’s Carnegie library now houses offices for Wiley College but the Jefferson building is actually still used as a library.
However, it wasn’t easy to get a Carnegie grant for a library since the community had to provide a location for it as well as enough tax money to support it.
So if they’re called Carnegie libraries, but who was this Carnegie fellow and why did he do this? The answer to the first of course was steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and the reason he wanted to establish libraries was that though his family consisted of poor immigrants, to them books were a vital part of their lives. For example, when Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, at that time his father was a weaver. Yet so important was reading that Mr. Carnegie and his fellow employees collected funds to buy books that could be read out to them as they worked.
When the family came to America in 1848 and settled in Pennsylvania, Andrew carried on the book loving heritage. In fact once he wrote to a newspaper editor seeking access for the public to private libraries that previously had only been available to those in certain trades.
Andrew first worked in a factory for $1.20 a week, then he became a telegraph messenger, then a telegraph operator and railroad employee. After he worked as an assistant to a railroad executive he gained experience to advance in the company. Meanwhile he was investing, particularly in the oil business and he was able to leave the railroad in 1865 to concentrate on his business interests. His commercial interests then expanded to steel and there he made his fortune, building plants and using technology that made steel manufacture easier and more profitable. By 1889 his company was the largest of its type in the world.
Then in 1901 Carnegie sold his company and became a philanthropist, supporting not just libraries but higher education – in 1904 he established what is now Carnegie-Mellon University.
His friends included prominent and political figures and wrote several books and articles - including his 1900 book "The Gospel of Wealth" - explaining the premise that the wealthy should share their resources to help others.
Yet while Carnegie and his fellow industrialists of the time were sometimes controversial, one way his name remains in the public memory is for the grants provided for the building of community libraries.