Vincennes Carnegie Library

Vincennes Carnegie Library

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. A total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. In the U.S., Indiana received more Carnegie libraries than any other state, 164. California had the second most at 142. Illinois ranked third highest with 106. The Carnegie Library in Vincennes was dedicated in April 1919, the year that Carnegie died.

In June of 1889, Carnegie wrote an article entitled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” In this article, the philanthropist describes the responsibility of philanthropy by the new upper class of self-made rich. In 1913, the 16th amendment was ratified and legalized the income tax in the U.S. Carnegie famously stated, “a man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” Carnegie, a “bobbin boy” from Scotland, began his career as a weaver. His family immigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania when Carnegie was a young boy. He was a “self made man” and a steel magnate. Carnegie spent the first half of his life amassing his fortune and the second half giving it away. Carnegie believed that the rich should live simply, provide moderately for their families and give the rest away while still living, acting as trustees of their wealth.

In Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” he refers to Enoch Pratt, Baltimore philanthropist, and said, “Many free libraries have been established in our country, but none that I know of with such wisdom as the Pratt Library in Baltimore. By placing books within the reach of 37,000 people which they were anxious to obtain, Mr. Pratt has done more for the genuine progress of the people than has been done by the contributions of all the millionaires and rich people to help those who cannot or will not help themselves.” Pratt was Carnegie’s role model for library philanthropy. Pratt believed that books are “for all rich or poor without distinction of race or color.”

After building the public library in Baltimore, Pratt gave the city $833,333.33, provided that the library be free for all. This endowment for the perpetual maintenance of the library is what Carnegie embraced as the element of “genius” in Pratt’s philanthropy. The cities and towns that received funding for the construction of Carnegie libraries had to agree to permanent tax levies with which to support the libraries.

Carnegie’s seven areas of philanthropy in 1889 were universities, free libraries (retail period), hospitals, parks, meeting and concert halls, public baths and churches (organs).

Why did Indiana have the most libraries? Carnegie never spoke or wrote about why Indiana had the most. Carnegie never visited any of the libraries in Indiana. David Kaser, distinguished professor emeritus, Indiana University, spent many hours fruitlessly searching for the reason Indiana had the most Carnegie libraries.

He did his research at Columbia University, location of the Carnegie archives. Kaser concluded that Indiana just came of age bibliothetically at exactly the right time to benefit from Carnegie’s generosity. By the time Carnegie initiated his library building campaign, the nation’s established cities east of Indiana had less need for Carnegie’s help.

Meanwhile, states west of the Wabash had not developed adequately educated populations for the necessary infrastructure to benefit fully from Carnegie’s generosity.

Carnegie regarded his libraries as investments in the nation’s future. Indiana in the early 1900’s had a bookish culture, widespread literacy, and an understanding of the importance of libraries and social libraries to insure use of free public libraries.

Carnegie put his money to work in Indiana because he believed it was a good location for his investments.

In his dedicatory address at Howard University Library on April 25, 1910, Carnegie told assembled students “Books are the most perfect instruments of philanthropy that exists. I will tell you why. They do not do anything for nothing. If you are going to get any benefit out of these books, you must work for it. I wish to help those who help themselves.”

Prior to Carnegie’s philanthropy in Indiana, township and county libraries were rather limited in literary selection, poorly housed and meagerly staffed, but there was a demand from the public for free libraries.

Despite the generosity of private associations, such as the William Maclure funded Mechanic and Workingmen’s Libraries, nearly every county in Indiana had at least one, libraries weren’t guaranteed any permanence in their communities.

A strong public library fervor rolled across Indiana from 1900-1929. This was the heyday of the Carnegie era. Sympathetic press reported on it and people in power supported it. Literary and women’s clubs gave the library movement of the late 19th century momentum and success. For example, on the historical marker in front of the Fortnightly, you can read that women of that club lobbied for funds from Carnegie. Ida Lusk, a founding member of Fortnightly, lead the campaign for the library in Vincennes.

In 1899, the Indiana Library Association was organized to promote establishment of local libraries and to press for more liberal legislation. Despite organized labor’s opposition to Carnegie and his “blood money” for libraries after the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of 1892, union activity didn’t deter the establishment of any Indiana Carnegie Library.

However, I’ve heard of unrest during the construction of the certain libraries. For example, while I was the library director at the Linton Public Library, a gentleman who remembered seeing the building constructed when he was a young boy in Linton, told me that coal miners picketed the construction site of the Linton Public Library in 1907.

As you make your way past the public library on Seventh Street in Vincennes, catch a glimpse of the gorgeous Collegiate Gothic style Carnegie library slightly visible beyond a brick wall and aluminum fence.

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