Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Ongoing Love Affair with Carnegie Libraries

The first old building I ever loved was the public library in my hometown of Alexandria, Minn.  Walking up the steps of the Carnegie Library, built in 1903, and opening the door was like embarking upon an adventure.  I didn't know what I was going to find, but the anticipation was part of the experience.  If you blindfolded me now and opened up a vial containing the smell of the library, I would know it instantly, although I can't begin to describe what it smelled like.

My earliest visits to the library are hazy, but I know that my mom was with me.  Upon entering the building, we'd walk down the stairs to the lower level, where all the children's books were shelved, and where the children's librarian had her desk.  I don't recall my mom putting a limit on the number of books I could check out; it was probably as many as I could carry.  There was such satisfaction in presenting the books for checkout and watching the librarian take the cards out of the books and stamp each one with the due date.  As convenient as the electronic checkout is now, I miss the cards and the stamps.

 Alexandria's Carnegie Library, built in 1903, is for sale for $990,000.

I went through a phase where I was determined to read every book in the children's section.  I think I made it mid-way into the Bs before I realized that while it might be possible to read every volume, it wasn't practical because not every book was worth my time.  It was a good lesson to learn early.  As I grew older, I started venturing upstairs, turning left at the big checkout desk and ferreting out grown-up books that appealed to me.  I was a huge Agatha Christie fan for a while.  I read James Michener and Herman Wouk.  It felt like a rite of passage, being mature enough to bike to the library on my own and check out books from the adult section, knowing that my little rectangular card gave me the same rights as any other library card holder.  Then, I would bike home (after buying a package of Cherry Nibs from Trumm Drug), and flop on my bed for two hours, reading until my cheeks were flushed and my parents called me for dinner.

Times change, of course, and although I'm happy to say that Alexandria still has a bustling library, it's no longer housed in the old Carnegie building, designed by architect Henry A. Foeller.  The Douglas County Library moved in the 1990s to a space a block or so away, in the old Central School building, where I attended junior high school.  When my kids, my mom and I visited the library during spring break in March, I noted that the space is much more accessible for people with disabilities, since it's all on one floor, and I admired the number of volumes it contained, but I longed for the charm of the library of my youth.  I missed the polished wood, the chandeliers, the large windows and the grandeur – all of which seemed to say to me, "Reading is Momentous."

I noticed this morning while searching online for information about the library that the Friends of the Douglas County Library auctioned off items from the old library earlier this month, including bookshelves, Depression-era glass, chairs and light fixtures.  If I'd known earlier, I might have considered bidding on a piece of my past.  But it's probably better that instead I recently renewed our family membership in the Friends of the Northfield Public Library organization.

The Northfield Public Library is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.  It also is a Carnegie Library.  I didn't think about that when we moved here in the summer of 1998, but I don't think it's a coincidence that we moved to a town with a vibrant public library that has a long history of serving the community.

We received this bookmark, designed by high school student Josie Dockstader, for renewing our FOL membership.

The library kicked off a series of centennial celebrations on April 25 with a birthday party, which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Northfield Arts Guild.  Louisa performed at the event with other members of the Northfield Youth Choirs.  The library has begun hosting a series of monthy Saturday evening concerts, and it's also brought in some authors for readings, with more centennial events to come.  The most recent issue of the Northfield News featured three pages on the library's past, present and future.

The dedication of the Northfield library in April 1910 included performances by quartets from Carleton and St. Olaf colleges.  This does not surprise me.  Live music and community events go hand-in-hand, and in towns where you find strong support for libraries, you also find strong support for the arts.

What I didn't realize, until I starting researching Carnegie libraries for this blog post, is that each Minnesota town my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, lived in had its own Carnegie library: Bemidji, Crookston and St. Cloud.  For him, these were not "old buildings," but quite new ones.  In fact, when the Crookston Public Library was dedicated in November 1908, G. Oliver's orchestra provided the live music.

This article about the library dedication was pasted into my great-grandfather's scrapbook.

My dad and I are traveling to Crookston after Memorial Day, so I will get the change to see the building up close.  The Crookston Public Library (now a branch of the Lake Agassiz Regional Library) moved in 1984 to a new building that's adjacent to the old library.  I'm not sure whether the old building is used for anything; I guess we'll find out.

Minnesota has 65 Carnegie libraries, some of which are depicted in these postcards.  Unlike Alexandria and Crookston, Northfield's was renovated in 1985 to remain in use as a public library, which pleases me greatly.  It has large windows, polished wood and a sense of history.  There has been talk in recent years of adding on again to meet the increased demands.  Although some people proposed building a new library in another location, I think the current plan is to add on to the library in 2014 at its present location.

Libraries are an important life force in a community and are worthy of our support.  And so I wish a happy 100th birthday to you, Northfield Public Library!  May you celebrate many, many more.


  1. I know just the smell you mean. I loved that library, too--the big card catalog, the high ceilings, the sound of the stamp, the crinkle of the cellophane covers on the books, the hush, all of it.

  2. I really love reading your articles Joy! Having lived close to Alexandria, I can transport myself there in a heartbeat. Just 13 miles down the road, you can find Glenwood's Carnegie Library, still in use but with some much needed updates.

  3. I'm not sure that I ever set out to read all the books in the library (or even one section!) from A-Z, but I started going to the Northfield Carnegie Library at a very early age and haven't stopped yet. And I continued my close connections with libraries at every phase in my life. I owe a serious debt of gratitude to Don Sward, the librarian at Washington Elementary School in Northfield, who was the first male librarian that I encountered. His recommendations of "The Swamp Fox" and "Erik the Red" among many others were all accepted without challenge. Hats off to the librarians of the world, including Lynne Young, the longest-serving director in Northfield Public Library's history.

  4. I am the proud owner of 6 of those chairs and Ann and I would be happy to let you come sit in one any time you are visiting your parents. Madame thinks they are quite comfy and has already claiimed one as her own! My fav. books in the Benson Public (Carnegie) Library were biographies of presidents and baseball players and the "Miss Pickerell" books!

    Jim Odden

  5. Carla: Yes, the card catalog! I forgot all about that ancient organization system. :)

    Ingrid: I don't know that I've ever been to the Glenwood Library; I'll have to check it out sometime.

    Dan: I concur with your salute to librarians!

    Jim: I will take you up on the chair offer. Is the Benson Carnegie Library still in use?

    Thanks, all, for reading and sharing!


  6. Thanks for putting to pen my feelings about the former Crookston Library. We also went downstairs to the children's room. The Crookston Carnegie is used for storage and needs a new roof. The people to contact are the Polk County Museum, they should be open on Sat after noon. Otherwise, call me, 218.289.1246


  7. Thanks, Kay! I was reading your blog today and am impressed with your preservation efforts. My dad and I would like to meet with you next week while we're in town, if you're available. I'll give you a call! We will be in Crookston Tuesday afternoon through Thursday morning.


  8. I have so many good memories of the Carnegie library in St. Cloud. My sisters and I spent many hours there as kids in the 60s. Unfortunately the city "powers that be" did not have the foresight and good sense to find another use for it when it was time to build a larger library, so it cam crashing to the ground. What a great loss. Thank you for your info on the Carnegies. Wonderful to find another fanatic!

  9. Thanks for reading and commenting! I'm sorry that the St. Cloud library is gone. Buildings like that can't be replaced.