I stopped in Stuart, Iowa a couple of weeks ago, hoping to see the old Carnegie Library building. Not being able to locate it in the near-dark, I stayed overnight in a local motel – I figured I could find it on my way to the local parish in the morning.
The light of day revealed that I was just a few months too late for seeing that particular Carnegie Library: it was now a construction site. The clerk at the (very old and cramped) City Hall next door told me that it was in need of extensive repair, was too small and “wasn’t very pretty anyway.” The new building will combine the public library with City Hall and perhaps a community center.
The clerk’s tone, and her ready directions to another “better kept” Carnegie library in the area let me know that there are quite a few of us who like to search them out. It also caused me to think quite a bit about my delight in those old library buildings.
I was disappointed that I missed this Carnegie building. Yet, if I really valued the mission and purpose of the project Andrew Carnegie took with these buildings, this might be one of the most successful sites I saw on this trip. To a city dweller, Stuart, Iowa seems a very small town in a farming area. The truck stop businesses by the interstate highway looked like the biggest and most prosperous in town: neither vibrant general stores nor Wal-Mart were visible. I don’t imagine there is a lot of tax revenue for building ventures in such a town.
It would be very easy for a town like Stuart to decide that it couldn’t afford a new library, or that some other type of community center was more important. But they did not do that. Their new building combines functions for efficiencies – easier to heat one building for 3 purposes than 3 different buildings – but they continued to value the presence of a library in their town.
Andrew Carnegie had particular criteria for library buildings constructed with his funds. He wanted the buildings to be solidly built, with classic lines and an appearance of dignity and quality. Where possible, people should walk up some stairs to enter, physically conveying the idea of ascending to new heights through knowledge. That grace and elegance continue to draw people like to seek out those old buildings. They speak to an age that was more willing to give honor to the sources of knowledge and learning.
Library buildings today tend to be utilitarian, and certainly handicapped-accessible: no more stone stairways to get in. In spite of the functional architecture, though, the spirit remains the same. Rather than glorifying the captured knowledge of the past, the modern buildings invite people into a dialogue with books, news, and – through the internet – the larger world.
So, although I’m sad to have missed the little Carnegie Library in Stuart, Iowa, I look forward to stopping by on a future trip to see the new community center that will still have a collection of circulating books at the core of its identity. Andrew Carnegie would be satisfied with his investment in the town, I am sure.