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August 21, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Carnegie Library

NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com

With its sleek columns and Beaux-Arts design, the building that now houses the Carnegie Center for Art and History has endured for more than 100 years as a monument to education here in New Albany. Of course, the steel magnate who had made it possible and for which it was named wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Andrew Carnegie was a self-made man. Born to poverty in Dunfermline, Scotland, he crossed the pond with his family in 1848 with little material wealth. Through the years, the Scotsman learned the value of hard work and the importance of learning, first in railroads, and then in the steel industry.

All this, alongside some business practices viewed as dubious at times, allowed Carnegie to become one of the top five richest people to have ever walked this earth. One transaction alone, in which he sold his U.S. Steel Company to J.P. Morgan in 1901, netted him $310 billion in today’s dollars.

Around the same time as this big deal, another much smaller arrangement was taking place, one that concerned New Albany. Carnegie had begun to offer grants to cities and towns for the construction of libraries. The municipalities had to agree to certain points in order to receive the funding. In particular, they had to contribute to the building of the structure by providing the land and to commit to giving money yearly for its upkeep. Most egalitarian of all, the library had to be free.

At the turn of the century, New Albany had requested and received one of these grants. Carnegie Center for Art and History Director Sally Newkirk said the organization still holds evidence of the acceptance.

“We have a mimeograph of a letter that Carnegie’s personal assistant wrote responding to the city of New Albany telling them that Carnegie had approved the grant for the library,” Newkirk said. “It was this gentleman that people always corresponded with. They never corresponded with Andrew Carnegie himself. It was always his personal assistant.”

Funds obtained through Carnegie’s generosity would be used to help build 2,309 libraries worldwide. For some unknown reason, Indiana hosts 165 of these buildings, making it the state with the most Carnegie libraries.

“Because he realized the importance of education and to have a free public library where anybody would have access to the information and knowledge, the libraries became important to him,” Newkirk said.

On March 2, 1904, New Albany’s Carnegie Library opened with more than 11,000 books shelved in its stacks. Area architect, Arthur Loomis, had designed the fresh, ornate structure. Other libraries had existed before in the city, but not to this grand of a scale. In addition to the building, locals also received a new way of finding books that did not involve a librarian hand delivering them.

“What is known as the “open shelf” system will be given a trial in the library and patrons will be given free access to the books and can select those they desire from the shelves instead of selecting from catalogues,” said a March 2, 1904 article in the New Albany Tribune.

The building would continue to house the city’s public library until 1969 when a bigger library was built. Some at the time thought the old structure should have been demolished, but a group of citizens banded together and saved it. In 1971, the Floyd County Museum officially moved in.

By 1988, the funding of the museum came into question. Newkirk and others went to the local library board and asked for help. That same year, the museum became an official library within the New Albany-Floyd County Library System. Funds for upkeep and personnel would be provided by this government entity, while money for exhibits and other events would be raised through the organization’s charitable arm, now called Carnegie Center for Art and History, Inc.

“When we became a department of the library in 1988, the library had really went out on a limb and said they would help us and as it evolved that help came in the form of our becoming a department of the library,” Newkirk said.

With a big makeover and a $1.2 million renovation in 1998, the museum reopened the following year with the name Carnegie Center for Art and History. Various art and historical exhibits are shown in its halls, with some permanent displays like “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men and Women of the Underground Railroad” and “Remembered: the Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols” being available year round.

Admission is free and open to the public, although donations are always welcome. Visit their website at carnegiecenter.org for hours of operation and other information.

“(Carnegie) wanted the libraries to become a lasting memorial, maybe to himself, but certainly for the people. That’s why he did it,” Newkirk said. “The fact that this building is still here is really a testament to how our thinking has evolved over the years in terms of value that we place on culture and preservation and historic buildings and how we view the past.”

 

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