Carnegie’s Gift: The Progressive Era Roots of Today’s Branch Library

Earlier this month, the Center for an Urban Future released a report entitled Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries, which takes stock of the capital needs of the city’s 207 branch libraries and identifies key obstacles to enabling them to meet 21st century demands. One component of this ongoing research and advocacy effort is a design study, co-organized by The Architectural League, that has selected five teams to respond to design challenges distilled from the report’s recommendations. These challenges range from ideas for new kinds of branches to reconfiguring the interiors of existing ones. The ways we use libraries evolves much more quickly than the spaces can adapt. And any design intervention for existing libraries would benefit greatly from understanding how these community institutions were conceived when they were first created. A large proportion of New York’s branch libraries came about thanks to a philanthropic gift from the industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1901. In the article below, Yael Friedman explores the social, philosophical, and architectural context of Carnegie’s unprecedented investment in public knowledge. In rendering this history, she shows how that vision corresponds with a contemporary reality in which more New Yorkers are using neighborhood libraries in more ways than ever before. –C.S.

Eastern Parkway Branch of Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton
Eastern Parkway Branch of Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

A world away from New York’s halls of power, and the famous, recently hotly debated stacks on 42nd Street, the Eastern Parkway Brooklyn Public Library illustrates the major achievements of Andrew Carnegie’s branch library project: the free community library as an American birthright. Carnegie’s branch libraries began as early temples of Progressive Era ideas about the democratization of knowledge and education, but over the past century have evolved into something even more vital. To both the native-born and newly arrived, the contemporary community library often serves as a first-stop resource center and refuge, its librarians acting as guides to assist community members to navigate issues of local concern and to identify opportunities for individual empowerment.

Celebrating one hundred years this summer, the Eastern Parkway branch bears many of the architectural and conceptual hallmarks of the Carnegie libraries. Numbering 67 at their completion, and 54 today, the Carnegie libraries formed the first free branch library system in New York City. Carnegie funded their establishment with a $5.2 million gift in 1901, only a few years after New York City’s consolidation of its five boroughs.

18 of Brooklyn Public Library's 58 branches are Carnegie buildings | Map by Jonathan Tarleton
18 of Brooklyn Public Library's 58 branches are Carnegie buildings | Map by Jonathan Tarleton

Thirteen years after Carnegie’s gift — equivalent to more than $150 million today — the Eastern Parkway branch library, on the corner of Schenectady Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, opened to the public. The building is one story high, with an elegant but modest limestone façade, five large arched windows, and a flight of steps leading up to the central entrance, a Carnegie library design trademark. The interior has been updated several times, exposing the changing patterns of library use that even these pioneering buildings could not account for. But in 1914, it was one of several elegant buildings sprouting on the grand Eastern Parkway — the relatively new boulevard, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, a marvel of engineering and landscape design. The library showcased the seemingly infinite promise of technology, progress, and the will to reform.

In the decades after the Civil War, this belief in progress and possibility gave rise to many far-reaching projects such as Carnegie’s. The new century saw New York build a subway system, San Francisco rise gleaming from the rubble, and the Wright Brothers defy gravity. The laws of physics seemed pliable, the future there to be molded. Progressives tried to harness this potent sense of promise to enact major reforms, invoking moral imperatives in attempts to redress the growing inequities they saw around them. Branch libraries arose as one solution. If today they continue to play increasingly vital roles in their communities, bridging gaps that other public institutions and social services seem unable to address, then reflecting on the Progressive Era ideas that inspired them might offer clues to 21st century institutional approaches to providing more people with an equal chance to participate in our economy and democracy.

Hull House | Image by Pond & Pond Architects, via NYPL
Hull House | Image by Pond & Pond Architects, via NYPL

Progressive Era Models for Reform

In the early 20th century, nothing less than the wholesale “improvement of mankind” seemed both necessary and feasible. Rapid industrialization and urbanization, along with mass immigration, exploded the normal pace and perception of charity and welfare: traditional almsgiving failed to address the new century’s problems. The increasing proximity of rich to poor in the city also opened a window into both worlds; many of the rich and middle class looked on in horror, many in sympathy, and the poor became keenly aware of what they did not have. As the historian Otis Pease writes about the era, “Men might still profoundly disagree about the formulas for change; fewer and fewer continued to insist that valid change could not be made.”[1]

Perhaps most famously, Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago illustrated the reformists’ vision for fixing both the causes and symptoms of poverty. Many of them found inspiration for direct community action in the writings of Tolstoy, a man born to privilege who, according to Addams, “has had the ability to lift his life to the level of his conscience, to translate his theories into action.” Her pilgrimage to Russia to visit the great sage filled her “with the hope of finding a clew [sic] to the tangled affairs of city poverty.”

Mulberry Street Settlement House Library, October 1920 | Photo via NYPL
Mulberry Street Settlement House Library, October 1920 | Photo via NYPL

In 1889, Addams founded Hull House in the West Side of Chicago, modeled after Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. It quickly became the prototype for settlement houses in America. The settlement movement, consisting mainly of educated, middle-class women, understood that the classes were increasingly economically interdependent and aimed to “settle” affluent volunteers in poorer parts of the city. These volunteers would endeavor not only to entrench themselves socially in the community, but also to provide social services that the community sorely needed, such as daycare, healthcare, and education. Hundreds of settlement houses proliferated across the US and sowed the seeds for the professionalization of social work and innovations in public policy.

Reformers contemplated a variety of means — from afterschool programs to public bathhouses — to give the poor a ticket of entry to civic and economic participation, alongside less noble motives to “civilize” them. An 1897 editorial in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle arguing for public baths claims that government bears the duty to “educate [the urban poor] out of their condition” and that a free bath is no “more a ‘gratuity’ than the right to walk in the public streets.” By the turn of the 20th century, New York had spent approximately four million dollars on 25 bathhouses. While the need for them eventually abated, society increasingly saw a wide range of services as a right.

Asser Levy Public Baths in Kips Bay, now a City recreation center and pool | Photo by Brian Imagawa
Asser Levy Public Baths in Kips Bay, now a City recreation center and pool | Photo by Brian Imagawa

But while some public policy addressed issues of poverty, reformers understood they had to make use of the era’s new immense private wealth to achieve their vision. They pursued collaborations with the rich and powerful, even if they often perceived the wealthy as responsible for the problems they sought to eradicate: the new industries and concentrations of wealth helped to create the execrable conditions in which many of the poor lived.

Since Social Darwinist theories reigned, many of the new millionaires easily rationalized the great divide between rich and poor as the natural and desirable order of the world. However, many also began to see their money as a public asset, held in trust for the greater good.

The Gift and Gospel of Andrew Carnegie


Beginning in 1898, Andrew Carnegie published a series of articles later termed the “Gospel of Wealth,” his effort to account for the accumulation of so much wealth by so few. He wrote that “Not evil, but good, has come to the race from the accumulation of wealth by those who have had the ability and energy to produce it.” However, Carnegie implored the wealthy now to ask, “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of the few?” Answering himself he wrote, “This then is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To consider all his surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which is called upon to administer…in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.”

Carnegie held in great contempt any wealthy individual who did not understand this duty to disburse his wealth in his own lifetime. To Carnegie, “The man who dies rich thus dies disgraced.” He was not alone. John D. Rockefeller heeded Baptist minister Frederick Gates’ warning that if Rockefeller did not redistribute his wealth “it will crush you and your children, and your children’s children.”[2]

Of course, not all agreed with Carnegie’s wisdom about a natural law that bestowed great wealth on the few, nor that this ultimately benefitted society. In response to Carnegie’s “Gospel,” one Methodist minister wrote that “he is an anti-Christian phenomenon, a social monstrosity, and a grave political peril … the unnatural product of artificial social regulations … Millions at one end of the scale involved paupers at the other end.”[3]

Carnegie gave away close to 90% of his money in his own lifetime, developing a systematic approach to philanthropy in order to reach the most people, to have the greatest impact. He wanted to make a wise investment. Carnegie himself described it as, “Not philanthropy, but a clever stroke of business.”[4]

Blast furnaces and iron ore at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation mills, Etna, Pennsylvania | Photo via Library of Congress
Blast furnaces and iron ore at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation mills, Etna, Pennsylvania | Photo via Library of Congress

One can find the origins for Carnegie’s investment in the universal free library in his own personal history. His exposure to intellectual literacy, and an almost religious belief in it, came from his famously modest beginnings as the son of a weaver from Dunfermline, Scotland. His father read aloud to others while at work and pooled money from them to buy books, eventually leading to the first circulating library in Dunfermline. Later on, as a young man working in Pittsburgh, Carnegie benefitted from a library established in 1850 by a Colonel Anderson for the benefit of the area’s mechanics and other tradesmen. Carnegie would later recall that “… it was when reveling in the treasures which he opened to us that I resolved, if ever wealth came to me, that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to that noble man.”[5]

During this time, free education, growth in book publishing, and the popularization of knowledge led to the rise of “social libraries,” especially in New England. In 1848, Massachusetts passed the first state act authorizing a city (Boston) to levy tax for the establishment of a public library. The new ethos of the era — that “all men [were] endowed with unlimited rational capacity and possessed natural right to knowledge and the potential to achieve it” — was evident in the development of major libraries in Chicago and New York. In 1895, the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden libraries, each created through private philanthropy, joined to create the New York Public Library, one of the world’s leading reference libraries. And in Baltimore, Enoch Pratt’s gift of just over one million dollars for a free central library and four branches, may have provided the most direct inspiration for Carnegie’s larger vision.[6]

The Astor Library, now the Public Theater | Image via NYPL
The Astor Library, now the Public Theater | Image via NYPL

Yet an extensive system of free branch libraries, rooted in the communities that most needed them, much like the settlement houses, did not yet exist. In 1881, Carnegie began his life’s work of library donations, starting with the place of his birth, Dunfermline. At first, he stayed local, focusing on Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, but he would ultimately reach across the English-speaking world and provide for the constructions of over 2,500 libraries, 1,600 in the US alone.

Not all of the branch libraries’ intended patrons welcomed Carnegie’s gift. Eugene V. Debs, the famous socialist and labor leader, railed against them: “We want libraries, and we will have them in glorious abundance when capitalism is abolished and workingmen are no longer robbed by the philanthropic pirates of the Carnegie class. Then the library will be as it should be, a noble temple dedicated to culture and symbolizing the virtues of the people.”[7] Most of the labor movement, however, took a more practical view. Samuel L. Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, once responded that, “After all is said and done, [Carnegie] might put his money to a much worse act. Yes, accept his library, organize the workers, secure better conditions and particularly, reduction in hours of labor and then workers will have some chance and leisure in which to read books.”[8]

Pratt Institute Free Library |  Image via NYPL
Pratt Institute Free Library | Image via NYPL

In 1867, when Carnegie established residency in New York, he believed the city too wealthy to need his help. However, in 1901, after the creation of the New York Public Library, he saw the city’s need for a branch system. Several free lending libraries existed by this time, including the Long Island Free Library in Brooklyn and the Pratt Institute Library, but neighborhood branches were still rare. In the same year, one day after he publicly announced the sale of his company to JP Morgan, Carnegie made his famous $5.2 million donation to the three library systems in the city: the New York Public Library (consisting of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx), the Queens Public Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library.

Carnegie’s vision for the branch library’s ability to thrive as a public asset required a commitment by the community equaling or even exceeding his own. In New York, in return for his gift for building 65 branch libraries, the City had to agree to provide the sites, maintain and repair the buildings, and stipulate to spending at least 10% of the grant each year to do so. The City also had to agree to make the libraries free and accessible and open from 9am to 9pm every day except for Sunday, more hours of operation than New York’s library systems can afford today.

Carnegie Library | Photo via NYPL
Carnegie Library | Photo via NYPL

Building the House of Knowledge

Carnegie worked with specially designated committees to ensure the smooth and fair process of site selection, architectural integrity, and, perhaps most impressively, keeping funds out of the hands of Tammany Hall in an age when institutionalized graft seemed a permanent characteristic of public projects

Site selection and acquisition proved to be the most contentious parts of the process. Every community wanted a library, understandably. However, a site had to meet certain criteria: it had to be centrally located, stand out clearly as a library, and be in close proximity to other civic and social centers, like schools and YMCAs. The City had hoped that the sites would be donated, but that rarely occurred, and ultimately had to buy almost all of the lots on which the Carnegie libraries now sit.

While initially considering a design competition, Carnegie wanted to ensure a unified and efficient design of the highest quality for the collection of New York Carnegies. To achieve this, he worked with a handpicked committee of the city’s top architects, such as Charles McKim, John Carrere, and Walter Cook, many of whom had already built major public monuments in New York and elsewhere.

Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton
Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

The prevailing trends of the era’s City Beautiful movement, which sought to inspire civic and moral virtue with the grandeur of public buildings, more or less guaranteed that a classical style would be used for the Carnegies, much like the NYPL’s palatial Beaux Arts main branch. However, Carnegie’s conceptions for his libraries as “souls of simplicity” tempered any serious intentions for grandiosity. His libraries would be elegant, maybe even beautiful, but modest and efficient.

While the different libraries ultimately had their own unique elements, they formed a recognizable and cohesive group.[9] Features common to the exteriors of many of them included: limestone façades, prominent central entrances reached by a short flight of stairs; classical ornament such as columns and pediments; large windows; and a flat roof.

Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton
Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

For the libraries’ interiors, prominent librarians met with the architects prior to planning and then reviewed the plans after they were drafted. As Mary B. Dierickx writes in The Architecture of Literacy, The Carnegie Libraries of New York City, this unique collaboration “was in accordance with [Carnegie’s] strong belief in the trained, professional librarian and in economical and efficient library buildings and plans … Librarians were dissatisfied with 19th century libraries, which they considered inefficient and uncomfortable … The Carnegie plans … incorporated the progressive library thinking of the period, where stacks were easily accessible to librarians, and light, airy, reading rooms were provided.”[10]

Carnegie’s emphasis on librarianship and on the library building itself have proven especially prescient. When he began his project, he received some criticism for his focus on buildings rather than books. An editorial at the time in The Philadelphia Times called his gift a “questionable gain,” noting that the physical structure was the last thing a new library needed. Rather it ought first to concentrate on its collection, which could be housed in any building, and only after it was well established would it need a new structure.

Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in 1914 and today | Photo via (l) Brooklyn Public Library and (r) Yael Friedman
Eastern Parkway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in 1914 and today | Photo via (l) Brooklyn Public Library and (r) Yael Friedman

The Branch as Resource and Refuge

More than a century later, the vitality and value of the branch library clearly relies on its identity as a distinct place with a distinct role, rather than because of the collection it houses. In densely populated or poorer neighborhoods such as Crown Heights, the library long ago ceased to function merely as a repository of books with librarians as passive high priests of knowledge keeping a watchful eye over a quiet room. Christian Zabriskie, a veteran librarian, founder of Urban Librarians Unite, and assistant manager at the Laurelton branch of the Queens Public Library, describes himself as an “information first responder for very serious issues and conditions that affect my patrons. Sometimes it’s ‘Where is the latest John Grisham?’ and sometimes it’s ‘I’m a gay teenager and I’ve been thrown out of my home and I’ve been living on the streets for three weeks, where do I go now?’ They’re different questions but they both fall under my aegis — their question is now my responsibility; they are now my responsibility.”

Daily News Clip from October 1985 | Image via Brooklyn Public Library
Daily News Clip from October 1985 | Image via Brooklyn Public Library

Likewise at Eastern Parkway, Senior Librarian Kimberly Tobler and Library Circulation Supervisor Kathleen Davis-Harvey described the needs of their patrons as ranging from help with housing forms, to information about free meals, to workforce programming, and certainly as a go-to haven for kids after school. Zabriskie, Tobler, and Davis-Harvey all emphasized the rising importance of programming, which has increased dramatically over the last ten years. Regular programs at Eastern Parkway now include Job Readiness, Computer Basics One On One, Story Play, and Kids Knit. One library program has partnered with a local alternative high school to provide for the school’s students — many of whom are mothers between the ages of 16 and 21 — to work at the library for minimum wage and earn school credit. As in many library branches, Eastern Parkway’s librarians also do community outreach, providing job readiness classes at homeless shelters, alternative schools, food banks, and organizations such as Saint Vincent Services, where the librarians work with the individuals in the Outpatient Chemical Dependence Treatment Program. Adult literacy centers have also become a major institution within the branch library system, especially in poorer and more immigrant-heavy neighborhoods. On a recent Tuesday evening, dozens of adult literacy students filled the second floor of the Eastern Parkway branch. The librarians clearly fostered an atmosphere of trust and security these students expect and would not come to the library without.

The library building itself as a constant in the community, a distinct haven, is most clearly apparent during times of social distress. As Zabriskie observes, “In response to disasters, it used to be that people would scramble to save the books; nobody gives a damn about the books … we can replace all of it — the idea in these times of great social disruption is that now the libraries function as an institution, independent of its collection.” The library in Ferguson, Missouri, has provided a stark example of this and not only stayed open throughout the unrest, but even extended its hours and was described by one observer as an “oasis of calm.” After the school district delayed the start of the new school year, teachers set up shop in the library and met with many of their students there.

In New York, after Hurricane Sandy, Matt Allison, a librarian at one of the Queens Public Library branches in the Rockaways, has described what happened when the buildings themselves were not available to their patrons for months. In the immediate aftermath, when Rockaway experienced a huge information gap and isolation from the rest of the city, Allison and other Rockaway librarians were sought out as familiar sources, their ability to provide valuable information seen as a natural extension of their and the library’s role in the community. Only a couple of months after, with libraries operating out of trailers, patrons, still busy rebuilding their homes, began to request that their book clubs and other library activities resume.

Branch libraries meet the needs of all of its community’s constituents, not just the poorest and most needy. Much like the settlement houses, but more resourceful, systemic, flexible, and democratic, the library has become further entrenched and more effective. Digital technology has not made the tangible assets of the library — spaces, books, and librarians — irrelevant. On the contrary, the branch library has only become more essential as an interpreter of modern life.

Following Hurricane Sandy, the Queens Library held children's story time outside the Peninsula Branch while adults sought relief assistance. | Photo via Queens Library
Following Hurricane Sandy, the Queens Library held children's story time outside the Peninsula Branch while adults sought relief assistance. | Photo via Queens Library

In 1916, Andrew Carnegie commissioned an economics professor, Dr. Alvin Johnson, to survey 100 of his libraries. According to library scholar George Bobinski, Johnson’s report argued that “the public library provided a practical and cultural service of great value … essentially a public service closely related to public education and equally deserving of its support.” However, “…unfortunately its functions in the modern community were not sufficiently understood … frequently resulting in the postponement of the establishment of library service or in the lack of adequate appropriations after it was established. But Johnson had faith in the public library’s future development and already saw current tendencies toward the increasing dependence of the community upon the library. He predicted that the public library would play a significant part in advancing popular intellectual progress.”[11]

Certainly, the branch library’s role in modern life cannot be summed up neatly, but that is mostly because it continues to evolve. The trends described by Johnson have greatly exceeded his predictions, and the need for branch libraries is only growing. As the city will always have to account for information and service gaps experienced by so many communities, libraries will likewise always have a very important and distinct role, forming the kinds of urban anchors without which no city could thrive.

When asked how and why their library has come to play this role, Tobler replied, “There’s a large need for so many different services in New York City [and] every opportunity we get, we’ll take on a new service that helps the community. It’s obvious it’s needed or we wouldn’t get so many people coming. And sometimes they come to the library more than other places because they’ve come to the library all their life, every generation.”

Photo by Jonathan Tarleton
Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

The Progressive Years, The Spirit and Achievement of American Reform, Selected and Edited with Introduction by Otis Pease; George Braziller, New York, 1962; p. 8.


Philanthropy in America, Oliver Zunz, Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 19.


Andrew Carnegie, David Nasaw, Penguin Press, New York, 2006, p. 353.


Carnegie Libraries, Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development, George S. Bobinski, American Library Association, Chicago, 1969, p. 11.


Bobinski, p. 12.




Ibid, p. 102.


Ibid, p. 103.


The Architecture of Literacy, The Carnegie Libraries of New York City, Mary B. Dierickx, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the New York City of General Services, 1996, p. 37.


Dierickx, p. 35



Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. You can find more of her work at Ida Post.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.