In 1902, the Gloversville Free Library’s board of trustees wrote to the wealthiest man in the world and asked him to build them a library.
At the time, the library was housed in the Lucius N. Littauer building on Main Street. It had been free to the public since 1888; prior to that, it had been a subscription library, where members were required to pay $2 a year — a price that for many people was too high.
The board of trustees soon received a reply from the secretary for businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie would give the town $25,000 for its library if the city would provide $2,500 for the library’s operating budget and land for the building. When the board of trustees asked for a bigger building, Carnegie agreed to build it if the city would provide the library with a $5,000 yearly budget. The board agreed.
Three years later, the Gloversville Public Library opened.
It was 14,000 square feet, shaped like a butterfly and had a 40-foot-high atrium with a domed ceiling. A double spiral staircase led to a balcony, and there were spacious reading rooms. Engraved in the stone above the front door was a single name: Carnegie.
Carnegie’s passion was building libraries for communities that needed them.
In the early 1900s, four Carnegie libraries were built in the Capital Region: in Schenectady, Amsterdam, Johnstown and Gloversville. The libraries of Amsterdam, Johnstown and Gloversville remain in their original buildings, while Schenectady’s Carnegie Library is now a Union College dormitory, Webster House.
Barbara Madonna, director of the Gloversville Public Library, said city residents are devoted to their library, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The library is currently engaged in long-range planning, and at a meeting earlier this month to discuss the library’s future, the message was clear: The library must stay in the building.
Even so, “I don’t think most people understand what a great gift this library was,” Madonna said. “I don’t think most people know who Andrew Carnegie was or what he did.”
All told, Carnegie built 2,905 libraries throughout the world.
He had two conditions: He would build the facility if the towns provided the land and continued financial support of at least 10 percent of the cost of the building.
“Word got around real quickly that Carnegie was willing to give towns libraries,” said Glenn Walsh, who maintains a website about Carnegie and served on the board of trustees for the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie, Pa., from 1995 to 2000.
Legacy of literacy
He said Carnegie brought the written word to communities that had previously lacked public access to books.
“It was very groundbreaking,” Walsh said. “Public libraries had not existed much at all.”
More than 1,650 Carnegie libraries were built in the United States, 106 in New York alone. Of those, 66 were located in New York City.
Walsh said that at least half of the Carnegie libraries still exist.
“Some are used for other purposes,” he said. “Some are still libraries.”
Schenectady’s Carnegie library opened in 1903 at the corner of Seward Place and Union Street, on land provided by Union College.
The Andrew Carnegie Foundation provided $50,000 for the building. General Electric gave the city $15,000, and the City Council voted to appropriate $5,000 annually for light, heat and general upkeep.
In a March 1969 piece printed in the quarterly newsletter of the Schenectady County Historical Society, former county historian and Daily Gazette columnist Larry Hart noted that the new Carnegie library had its share of critics.
“But was everyone happy now that the library was a reality?” Hart wrote. “Emphatically, no. The Seward Place site was considered the ‘environs’ or suburbs of the city, and even before construction began there was a general grumbling about ‘putting the new library out of reach’ of the public. Many also thought the building was too big, too elaborate.”
Hart said the library board president, Willis T. Hanson, said at the library’s opening on Oct. 6, 1903, “I do not believe any location can be too attractive or any building too beautiful for the honest and industrious working people as long as the visitors are made to feel welcome.”
The Carnegie library wasn’t Schenectady’s first.
According to Hart, the YMCA ran a free circulating library in the 1890s, and a subscription library was also maintained by “George Clare in connection with his newsroom at 143 State Street.”
In 1894, a committee was formed to look into the feasibility of bringing a public library to Schenectady. Soon after, a library was established on the second floor of the Fuller Building (later renamed the Wedgeway Building) on Erie Boulevard. By 1900, the library had 7,815 books. According to Hart, “The temporary library quarters in the Fuller Building consisted mainly of a large reading room and another area where books were kept in closed stacks, supplied to library users only upon request.”
Carnegie was born in Scotland and immigrated to America as a child.
He grew up poor on the north side of Pittsburgh and struggled to obtain books to read. There was no library, and his family couldn’t afford to buy him books, according to Walsh of the Carnegie website.
When a wealthy industrialist, Col. James Anderson, opened his private library to boys from the neighborhood, Carnegie was finally able to borrow books. Anderson later built a library for the town, but it was a subscription library, meaning patrons had to pay to use it.
“Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the subscription, so he wrote a letter to the newspaper complaining about the policy,” Walsh said. As a result, the policy was changed and the boys were allowed to take out books for free.
“That taught Andrew Carnegie the power of the pen,” Walsh said.
Carnegie had no formal education and went into business to support his family. He moved up the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and became rich in the process. Eventually he resigned from the railroad and started investing in steel and iron. By his 30s, he was a multi-millionaire, and when he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901, he became the wealthiest man in the world.
Walsh said that Carnegie had always wanted to “give back” and soon settled on the idea of giving libraries to communities that needed them. He built his first library in Dunfermline, Scotland, his birthplace, and then focused his attention on Pittsburgh, constructing a main library and eight branches.
Building on gifts
The public library wasn’t Carnegie’s only contribution to Schenectady.
He also provided Union College with $40,000 to convert the Nott Memorial into a library and gave the college $100,000 to construct the school’s engineering building, built in 1910 and today occupied by the Reamer Campus Center.
When Schenectady’s current library, on Liberty and Clinton streets, opened in 1969, Hart marked the event with a piece on the library’s history, titled “Diamond Jubilee.”
“This is an eventful year in the history of Schenectady County’s public library system,” Hart wrote. “The 75th year of its existence will be commemorated by the opening of a new library facility, in which the local citizenry has been assured of a modern and functional library ‘free to all’ ... just as it was at the turn of the century.”
Jane Getty, executive director of the Amsterdam Free Library, said that all Carnegie libraries are a little bit different, but they share some common features. “This library and most others have a lot of oak,” she said. “We have oak bookshelves, oak wainscoting.”
Amsterdam has expanded its library over the years, building an addition and installing ramps and elevators to make it wheelchair accessible, as required by federal law. More recently, the library renovated its mezzanine, converting it from a storage area for older, specialty books to a room for computers, the local history collection and books on the Civil War.
The Johnstown Public Library still has the letter that Carnegie’s secretary, James Bertram, wrote to the Johnstown Board of Trade, informing them that Carnegie would provide $20,000 for a library. The letter is fragile, according to Library Director Barbara Germain, and hangs in an office in a glass frame.
“People are very, very attached to this library,” Germain said.
The library conducted a feasibility study in the late 1980s to determine whether a new library should be built, and residents said they wanted to remain in the old Carnegie building.
“The library is a downtown anchor,” Germain said. “In people’s minds, it’s been here forever, and they want it to stay. ... People who use the library regularly understand the connection to Andrew Carnegie.” Even people who don’t know who Carnegie is “understand there’s something special about the library,” she said.