Ohio Librarian Catalogues Carnegie's Monuments to Knowledge

By Lawrence Biemiller

Westerville, Ohio -- It's clear that chance and circumstance conspired secretly for years to prepare Mary Ellen Armentrout for a seemingly modest project, one whose popularity now astonishes her.

A fortuitous interview for a job in a community-college library introduced her to what has become her career. Then a graduate-school course in library history piqued her interest. Sports-car rallies with her ex-husband taught her how to read maps -- an essential skill if you're going to be driving all over Ohio. Architectural-history classes gave her a keen eye for egg-and-dart molding and terrazzo floors. By the time her daughter was old enough to get her own apartment, freeing Ms. Armentrout to spend weekends and summers as she pleased, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her spare time: Compile a catalogue, complete with histories and photographs, of all 115 of Ohio's Carnegie libraries.

The research, which she started last summer, will take four years to complete. A publisher has already expressed interest in the project, although Ms. Armentrout's plan to send an exhibition about the libraries to tour the state still lacks a sponsor. But people who have read about the project are enthusiastic: A story in The Columbus Dispatch in April "generated about 100 phone calls," says Ms. Armentrout, who is the interlibrary-loan librarian at Otterbein College here. "People have really latched on to this. There's so much pride in these buildings."

A handsome Carnegie library on Otterbein's campus explains why. Like many of the libraries, it's a miniature Roman temple in tan brick, a monument to knowledge and literacy crowning a hillock in a small Midwestern town. Stairs lead to a sober doorway beneath a gable ornamented with an open book. Inside is a central hall with a splendid barrel-vaulted ceiling and a skylight with stained glass.

"Most of the libraries had an entrance and two wings," says Ms. Armentrout, showing off the building's high windows and the Greek motifs in its plasterwork. "Carnegie libraries had different architects, but they all had the same general floor plan. The circulation desk was here in the middle, where a single librarian could see everything. Andrew Carnegie was Scottish and very economical." The stacks were usually behind the circulation desk.

"This building hasn't been a library for at least 25 years," she says, leading the way into a spacious reading room with a fireplace. "It was the president's office, and now it's admissions." Carnegie gave Otterbein $20,000 for the library in 1905, but his gifts included no restrictions on the ways the buildings were subsequently used. "There was no clause that said you had to put Carnegie's name on the building," Ms. Armentrout adds. "A photo of him came with the gift, but it wasn't a requirement that you display it." In the course of a 30-year spree during which he sometimes gave away buildings at the rate of several a week, Carnegie spent $56-million on 1,679 libraries in 1,412 U.S. cities and towns, as well as 830 libraries in other countries. Of the 115 Ohio libraries, eight were given to colleges and the rest to municipalities.

Before Carnegie's program began, "many towns had private, subscription libraries, but they were really discriminatory," Ms. Armentrout says in the car on the way into Columbus. "You had to apply for membership and pay a subscription fee. Carnegie wanted to provide free books so people could educate themselves." He had only a fifth-grade education himself, but while he was a teen-ager he sought, and won, permission to borrow from a private library owned by a man in Allegheny, Pa.

Vilified by union members in the wake of a bitter 1889 strike at his plant in Homestead, Pa., Carnegie was widely believed to be the country's richest man when he sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $500-million in 1901. He donated libraries that were "OPEN TO ALL," as an inscription proclaims on the front of the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. The building, a splendid palace in white marble, has been enlarged several times, most recently in 1990. It now has a parking deck, a library store, and an espresso stand in a side lobby.

And it's a building crowded with readers on a Saturday morning 94 years after it was built -- a testament to Carnegie's foresight. His library program, Ms. Armentrout says over café au lait, "opened up the whole idea of public libraries for everyone." Towns wanting libraries had only to meet a few simple conditions: A plan for the building had to be submitted, a site had to be acquired, and the town had to agree to tax itself to pay for books, salaries, and upkeep. Carnegie's standard gift amounted to about $2 per resident, Ms. Armentrout says.

From Columbus Ms. Armentrout drives south and west along country highways surrounded by the summer's rising corn. So far she has visited about 50 library sites in the southern and northeastern parts of the state. Five of the libraries have been torn down, including one in Marysville that was bulldozed by its owner, a Methodist church, just days after a preservationist asked Ms. Armentrout for information about its historical importance. About half of the remaining buildings are still in use as libraries, she says. Others serve as historical societies, law offices, even a homeless shelter. "The worst scenario," she says, "is they sit empty till they fall apart."

In Mt. Sterling (population 1,647), she parks in the shade of an old tree -- she is a meticulous traveler, and makes a point of parking in the shade whenever possible. But she is disappointed to find the red-brick Carnegie library locked up, with a "Summer hours" sign taped to a door beneath the deep, Italianate eaves. From Ben and Joy's Restaurant a block away, she phones the librarian, Doris Wilson, at home. Ms. Wilson says it's no trouble to come over. In the meantime, Ben and Joy's offers hot sandwiches with cream gravy and slices of pie.

The Mt. Sterling library, once unlocked, is as fine an institution as a small town could want. Ms. Wilson says the library cost $7,265 and opened in 1911, when the librarian was paid $3.50 a week and had to "keep the sidewalks clean and the furnace fed." Substantially enlarged a few years back, the library still has its original tables, chairs, and light fixtures.

In Wilmington, a Carnegie library has just reopened after a substantial enlargement. Ms. Armentrout has learned to look for small inconsistencies that distinguish original elements from additions; these help her trace the initial configuration of rooms and stacks. But in Xenia she can show only the exterior of a dilapidated library building that has been in private hands for 20 years. It is about to be converted into offices for an architecture firm, she says. Dentils are falling off the cornice and weeds grow in front of the steps, but the foliage that appeals to Ms. Armentrout is sculpted in terra cotta, swagged beneath the windows and curling in wreaths around the legend "FREE TO THE PEOPLE."

By now the afternoon is waning. In Wilberforce, chance brings someone to open the door of a 1904 building that used to be Wilberforce University's Carnegie library. The building now houses offices for a nearby museum. In Cedarville, a battered-looking 1907 Carnegie library serves as Cedarville College's fine-arts department, deserted at 6 on a summer Saturday. In London Ms. Armentrout finds the day's last shady parking spot, behind the new wing of a Beaux-Arts Carnegie library with a distinctive copper marquee. Peering through glass doors, she points out an oaken vestibule, a columned hall beyond.

Ms. Armentrout says over dinner that the Carnegie libraries in Illinois, Kansas, and Ontario have been catalogued, and that someone is working on California. Librarians throughout Ohio have been happy to help with her project, she says -- Mt. Sterling's Ms. Wilson and others have had files out and waiting when she arrived. Although she's two years away from finishing her research, much less publishing her catalogue, she knows the libraries' fans are eager -- very eager. "Many of them have a personal interest in the libraries," she says, still sounding surprised. "I didn't realize they'd be this excited."

Copyright © 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published August 8, 1997.