Branches from the Baron: Cincinnati’s Carnegie Libraries
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Branches from the Baron
Cincinnati’s Carnegie Libraries

As the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County expanded at the beginning of the twentieth century, the library’s trustees turned to Andrew Carnegie to build new branch libraries. The construction of Cincinnati’s Carnegie branches extended access to dedicated library facilities outside of the downtown basin, because the branches were primarily built in the emerging hilltop neighborhoods. The library trustees were largely responsible for location decisions. Community associations saw the construction of a neighborhood branch as a desirable status symbol, and regularly attempted to influence the trustees’ decisions in their favor.

Over the course of fifteen years, Carnegie grants were used to build nine branches, seven of which are still in operation as of 2016. The construction of the Carnegie libraries was long and often difficult, involving setbacks with site location, cost overruns, political controversy, and most dramatic of all, the suspension of a grant for several branches in 1916. The Carnegie libraries formed a key part of a robust county-based metropolitan library system by extending not just the provision of books, but also the creation of new public spaces into the area’s neighborhoods. The branches occupied important places in the life of Cincinnati neighborhoods, and provided new spaces in which voluntary associations could meet.

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Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919).

library of congress

Much of the literature on Carnegie libraries does not examine the factors related to location decisions, even though these decisions affect user accessibility. Recent scholarship on Carnegie libraries has primarily focused on the social context of who supported, used, and rejected Carnegie libraries, the architecture of Carnegie libraries, and how these libraries promoted reading consistent with white middle-class values. Built between 1886 and 1919, with funds from the wealthy steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, Carnegie libraries were an integral part of the public library movement in the United States. Thousands of Carnegie libraries were built across America because any community could solicit Carnegie’s funds for a library, provided it supplied a site and annually committed 10% of the original donation for maintenance. [End Page 45] The Midwest especially benefited from Carnegie’s funds, receiving more buildings than any other region. Cincinnati’s construction of Carnegie branches stands in contrast to the small towns that built a single Carnegie library, since it already had some level of distributed library services in place.1

Prior to the Carnegie branches, Cincinnati and surrounding Hamilton County did not have a well-developed branch library system. Library services were available throughout the city and county via deposit stations, deliveries, and “branches” that were often located in modest facilities or buildings that served a different primary purpose. There appeared to be no branches housed in a purpose-built library building prior to Cincinnati’s Carnegie libraries. Cincinnati’s Carnegie library era began in 1902, when the trustees first contacted Carnegie, and ended in 1917, with their last communication with Carnegie.

As Cincinnati grew outward from the central business district, new communities boomed on Cincinnati’s hilltops, and adequate library services were needed farther from the main library building that was located downtown. At the time, the library was formally known as the “Public Library of the School District of Cincinnati,” as the library did not have a formal relationship with the city of Cincinnati. It had been affiliated with the school district since the 1850s, and had previously drawn funding support from a levy that more broadly supported the school district. Library borrowing privileges were extended to all of Hamilton County (which contains Cincinnati, along with smaller towns and villages) following passage of an 1898 act by the state legislature. After this act was passed, the library trustees sought to expand services around the county via deposit stations, and later with urban branches. Cincinnati was one of the first public library systems to extend services to county residents. In 1900, the library’s trustees passed a resolution to accept management of village libraries upon request. As a result, a number of the deposit stations and modest branches that had been established in the distant areas of the county, far from the...