Those of us from a fading generation remember them well — stone beacons that lured us through their doorways to the fantasies and great adventures they housed. Long before there was 24/7 cable television, all manner of electronic gadgetry and endless organized activities, we filled the idle times of our youth with books borrowed from the local library.
We read Treasure Island and Black Beauty; were introduced to fascinating characters, real and imagined, from Tom Sawyer and Robin Hood to Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, simply after showing a free-for-nothing library card that enabled us to pick what we wished to take home on a two-week loan.
Such were my reflections recently as I made my way back to my heartland, there to celebrate a good friend’s birthday.
This year, the old two-story limestone Carnegie Public Library in little Ballinger, Texas (pop. 3,671) is 100 years old, still providing its services to the 700 or so patrons who visit monthly to browse among its 15,000 fiction and nonfiction titles.
And today, as it was back when I first found my way to its seemingly endless maze of shelves, the man we all have to thank is a Scotland-born industrialist whose vast fortune was exceeded only by his generosity. Of course I didn’t know Andrew Carnegie personally, inasmuch as he died in 1919, two decades before I was even born. But, Lordy, do I owe him — as do millions of others who first developed their habit of reading with visits to public libraries named in his honor.
Time was when Carnegie libraries were the rule rather than the exception in U.S. cities, large and small. At one time there were 1,689 of them from coast to coast, each funded over a 30-year period with grants from the generous and foresighted steel magnate. As he once observed, a public library “is a never-failing spring in the desert.”
In 1908, he wrote a check for the $17,500 needed to build the first library I would ever visit. Other larger cities received considerably more. A few years earlier, for instance, New York had received a $5,202,621 Carnegie grant to build libraries throughout Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Dallas got $76,000 to build its first public library. The first U.S. Carnegie library, located in Fairfield, Iowa, was built in 1893, at a whopping cost of $40,000.
It was, in fact, in the small towns that they flourished, standing as the centerpieces of the community. Remember Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel, Main Street? His heroine was the Carnegie librarian, her fictional workplace the symbol of the social awareness she struggled to bring to the local residents.
In Ballinger, it has been much the same.
Local historian Janice Routh recalls when the library not only dispensed books but also was where, during World War I, Red Cross volunteers gathered to roll bandages to be forwarded to American troops. Later, its upstairs served as the World War II home of the Army and Navy Club, where cadets training at the nearby flight school gathered for social events. And before the public school had its own cafeteria, students were served a noon meal prepared in the library’s kitchen.
History, this place has.
When I first visited the library in the early 1950s, it seemed much larger and more daunting than it appears today, the steps leading to its front door far steeper and more demanding, the ceilings higher than in any building I’d ever seen. And I’d have guessed the number of books it contained to be somewhere in the millions.
Such was the view through 12-year-old eyes.
Now, more than a half century later, computers have replaced the old card catalog, and a younger generation comes not only for books but also for videos and free access to the Internet. Librarian Julie Gray constantly searches for new and inventive ways to fund needed repairs to the old building, purchase more books and provide new programs for the library’s patrons. “This is such a wonderful place,” she says. “I began coming here as a little girl, always amazed that there were so many books in one place. To me, it’s still magical.”
Today, the Carnegie libraries, including the one she watches over, are fading into history. Many, having served their purpose, have been demolished, replaced by more modern facilities. Some, still standing, have been converted into museums. In her native Texas, Gray points out, there once were 32 Carnegie libraries. Today, Ballinger’s is one of only four still active in the state.
According to Theodore Jones, author of Carnegie Libraries Across America, by 1997, around 772 functioning Carnegie libraries remained in the United States. There’s little doubt that the number has continued to dwindle.
As we neared the checkout desk at the end of my sentimental journey, Gray pointed out that it was the same one that has been used throughout the century-long life of the library. “When you checked out books as a boy,” she said, “you stood right here.”
Back then, when Ms. Watkins was the librarian, seated behind it and stamping the return date into the books I was borrowing, it seemed so much bigger.