A Good Deed Brings Good Reads

When Andrew Carnegie, a 19th century industrialist and philanthropic powerhouse, accumulated his multimillion-dollar fortune through his family’s railroad and steel business, he gifted the River City with more than a means of transportation. Carnegie spread his wealth with hefty grants to erect more than 2,500 public libraries across the world, including 164 in Indiana alone. In 1909, members of Evansville’s West Side Business Association wrote Carnegie and requested funds for four public libraries. They later received $50,000, and used the funds to construct two Carnegie library branches, on Evansville’s East and West sides.

Today, these facilities are two of eight libraries in the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library system. Led by Executive Director Marcia Au, EVPL claimed a spot on the 2010 Top Ten American Library list from Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings and received a four-star rating in Library Journal.

The two Carnegie libraries are part of that success. Located 3.5 miles apart in Bayard Park and West Side Library Park, they were opened and dedicated on Jan. 1, 1913. Among trees and park benches, these historical buildings are preserved as traditional, community libraries, says Amy Mangold, EVPL community relations and development officer. For that reason, the city’s Carnegie libraries look very different from its new — and also architecturally significant — libraries. “You aren’t going to see an energy efficient green roof and very open spaces like you see at Oakland (Library),” she says.

Each Carnegie branch was designed and constructed simultaneously by Evansville architect Clifford Shopbell. To execute Carnegie’s style, says Mangold, Shopbell included an exterior staircase that Carnegie believed would “take you to a higher place of learning.” The Bedford limestone is etched with Carnegie’s name, and the symmetrical facades, ornately carved stone window trim, and large stone blocks at the corners suggest a Renaissance revival style that Shopbell used on several of his Carnegie library sites. Marble floors, brass lamps, and dark oak bookshelves also are distinctive Carnegie features, and they each have that “unique smell of an old library that brings back childhood memories,” says Mangold.

Beyond the libraries’ sights and smells are the books. Since 1913, each branch has accumulated more than 25,000 items, varying from books, DVDs, and CDs. These are places for children’s story time, adult classes, senior citizen computer classes, and meetings for neighborhood organizations.

Of the estimated 100 Carnegie libraries remaining in Indiana, around 40 are occupied for other purposes such as the police department in Boonville, Ind. In 2010, more than 75,000 people passed through the Carnegie branches. “We’re glad that people appreciate these locations,” says Mangold, “because it does say a lot about the history of library service here in the Evansville community.”

Cherry Street Carnegie Library
After the East and West Side Carnegie libraries were up and running, Evansville’s chief librarian envisioned a library for African Americans (due to segregation at that time). She requested additional funding from Carnegie, and received $10,000 to build the Cherry Branch Library. It opened Nov. 24, 1914, with 2,800 books. Sold to the Boy Scouts in 1955, the building was razed in the 1970s.

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