The Carnegie libraries

When you think about the classic facilities we have abandoned, neglected or torn down in Little Rock through the decades, you just want to cry.

A current example is Ray Winder Field, widely recognized on websites that cover sports facilities as one of the most historic old ballparks in the country. No one associated with City Hall ever lifted a finger to save this facility for use as a high school and college ballpark, perhaps one that included a baseball museum.

What a jewel that would have been in Little Rock’s crown. Soon, it will be gone.

In a few years, once the UAMS bulldozers have done their job, all we will have are photos of this historic facility.

The same fate befell Little Rock’s Carnegie Library. We didn’t save it.

It was one of only four Carnegie libraries in the state. A grant of $88,100 from the Carnegie Foundation of New York in 1906 allowed planning to begin.

The library was opened on Feb. 1, 1910. That library continued to be utilized until 1964 when it was torn down and replaced by the ugly building that now serves as some kind of computer center. There are still tables from the Carnegie Library in use at the Main Library in the River Market District and the adjacent Cox Creative Center. Original shelving from the library is still used at River Market Books & Gifts.

And Bobby Roberts, the director of the Central Arkansas Library System who is a historian by training, found four stone columns that were part of the original library. Roberts rescued them from a scrap yard, and they now stand proudly in front of the Main Library.

The people of Fort Smith, Morrilton and Eureka Springs were wiser than those in Little Rock. Those three cities saved their Carnegie libraries, though Fort Smith’s building has long been used as a studio and office complex for KFSM-TV.

The beginnings of what’s now the Fort Smith Public Library can be traced back to the formation of something called the Fortnightly Club in October 1888. It was a women’s literary and social organization. Mrs. Isaac C. Parker, the wife of the famous federal judge, was a charter member and the organization’s first president.

The ladies in the club organized the Fortnightly Club Library Association and sold shares for $5 each to help pay for a library. That library was opened in the Belle Grove school building with 1,100 books on the shelves. The Fort Smith Public Library website says the opening was in July 1892. The University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections (where the Fortnightly Club papers are housed) website says it was the summer of 1889.

At any rate, it was the largest public library in the state by 1902.

The Fortnightly Club played a key role in obtaining a Carnegie grant for $25,000 in March 1906. Construction took place during 1907 and the building opened in January 1908 on North 13th Street on the site of the house in which Judge Parker had died.

Construction of a new library on South Eighth Street began in 1969 and was completed in 1970 with the Carnegie library becoming part of the television operation soon afterward.

“I grew up in the Carnegie Library in Fort Smith,” Brian D. Johnson wrote on his blog “Context & Continuity” a couple of years ago. “I remember the wooden floors, the enormous wooden rails on the stairs leading up to the children’s room and the fact that it was so convenient that the Dr. Seuss books were shelved so that I could easily reach them. … My library card was pale blue with rounded corners, and there was a metal tag affixed to it. I can remember exactly how the library smelled.”

There’s that special library smell again, something mentioned in the previous post.

Johnson went on to write, “Andrew Carnegie was a wicked man in many respects, but I can’t help but second the person who called him the patron saint of the library. I would not be me it it weren’t for the Carnegie Library and the Fort Smith Public Library. It’s impossible for me to calculate how many hours, days I spent there. For my mother, it was a combination of child care and a priceless gift that created. . . me.”

In Morrilton, a women’s club known as the Pathfinder Club was established in 1897. Like the women’s group in Fort Smith, the ladies collected books and began raising money for a library.

A town meeting was called in 1914, and community members pledged to help the club build and maintain a library. Funds were solicited to purchase the Old School Presbyterian Church. The club’s books were moved to that building once shelves were added. Those in town who were sponsored by a club member could use the library for a small charge.

W.S. Cazort of Morrilton purchased a collection of more than 1,000 rare books from a reclusive Chicago engraver named William Porter. Cazort, in turn, transferred the books to the Pathfinder Club for what was described as a modest sum. Using the rare book collection as a bargaining chip, the Pathfinder Club applied to the Carnegie Foundation for a grant. A $10,000 grant was received in September 1915, and Morrilton soon became one of the smallest cities in the South with a Carnegie Library.

Of the grant, $7,500 was used to build a 3,628-square-foot facility. The rest of the money was used to buy furniture and coal for heating. The building opened in October 1916. The top floor held the books. The lower floor had a meeting room, kitchen, furnace and coal bin.

In Eureka Springs, meanwhile, a board of trustees was organized in 1910 and plans for a library building were sent to Carnegie. A grant was received for $12,500 and construction began.

We’ll let the website for the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library take it from here: “The original site for a stone structure designed by St. Louis architect George W. Hellmuth was not suitable, and the new site on Spring Street was a solid stone cliff. The new site was donated by R.C. Kerens, a Eureka Springs investor. Eventually, the site was excavated but because of delays, bad weather and the additional costs of excavation, B.J. Rosewater, the president of the library board of trustees, petitioned — and petitioned repeatedly — Carnegie for additional funds to complete the project.”

The Carnegie Foundation finally agreed to send an additional $3,000 to Eureka Springs. The building opened in 1912. When the city turned down a request for $1,250 annually to operate the library, Rosewater went to the people. Memberships were sold for $1 per year. Books and furniture were donated.

In the winter of 1916, the library closed due to insufficient funds for fuel and staff. Funds were later raised to reopen the facility. By 1921, it was open six days a week. The building, constructed of locally quarried stone, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The library in Eureka Springs is now celebrating the centennial of the original Carnegie gift.

“The people of Eureka Springs cherish their history,” says Lynn Larson, a centennial committee member. “One of the most remarkable aspects of that history is the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library. How it came to be here in our little town and how it has continuously served the community is worthy of recognition and honor. It is a fulfillment of Andrew Carnegie’s belief that knowledge should be freely available to all, regardless of financial means or station in life. We are proud to carry on the legacy, providing materials and resources that bring the world of information to every patron free of charge.”

Events such as book fairs, teas, garden parties and lectures are being held every month this year.

Hats off to the people of Morrilton and Eureka Springs for still operating libraries in their historic Carnegie buildings.

As for Little Rock … well, it was Little Rock just being Little Rock. Take a long look at sad old Ray Winder Field for proof of how things work in the state’s largest city.

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One Response to “The Carnegie libraries”

  1. Joe Mosby says:

    This is just a little anecdote about a Carnegie library but not in Arkansas. when I graduated from high school, I landed a job in western Oklahoma where a new oil field was being opened. I drove a truck and worked 12 hours a day. Not knowing anybody in town in my age range, I went by the local Carnegie library (this was in Elk City, Okla.), checked out a book and read for a couple of hours before going to bed. I did it repeatedly. Somehow this helped the adjustment from high school to beginning adulthood.

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