One hundred years ago the country was in the middle of a riot of library construction. Andrew Carnegie’s name is nearly synonymous with the period, largely due to his funding for over 1,500 libraries between 1883 and 1929, but architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck notes that the late 19th century was marked by widespread interest in community development, with broad recognition of libraries as a means of promoting individual development.
“For library patrons, male and female, young and old, the new library offered a pleasant surprise.” Libraries became recognizable landmarks, and recognizably public. “Readers could enter freely, safe in the knowledge that they were welcome.”
And inside the library the barriers were coming down. Where once a user needed to request materials from the librarian, open stacks became increasingly common with libraries constructed near the turn of the century. Historian Walter Langsam praised the development this way:
The Carnegie libraries were important because they had open stacks which encouraged people to browse. The open stacks were more democratic. People could choose for themselves what books they wanted to read. The libraries were meant to be for people of all walks of life.
(Van Slyck notes that Carnegie insistence on open stacks developed after the turn of the century.)
And while the widespread construction of libraries may have begun as “gifts of men grown wealthy during the [Civil] war,” they soon became valued institutions of the people.