Dedicated to the Diffusion of Knowledge

It may not seem like it to an outsider, but Washington D.C. is really our nation’s brain trust. All those brilliant minds, working on important issues, plus all those smartypants Congresspeople! The city gave us the think tank, the Smithsonian, and bars that open early for Senate hearings. In Washington, everyone is expected to always be up-to-date on everything, continuing their education forevvvvvs.

This appreciation for intellectualism remains a constant in the nation’s capi — OH SWEET BABY JAMES, they’re turning the city’s Carnegie Library into an Apple store.

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When I lived in Washington, I would walk past this gorgeous Beaux-Arts gem in Mount Vernon Square every day on the way home from work. To be fair, the Carnegie Library hasn’t been used as a library for some time, but the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is headquartered there and it’s often rented out for fancy parties hosted by politicians or media outlets. The marquee across the top reads SCIENCE – POETRY – HISTORY and DEDICATED TO THE DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE and every day, I felt like doing a fist-pump in the air as I walked by for alllll of that good stuff.

(I didn’t, because in addition to being home to much wisdom, DC is also home to much catcalling.)

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Much like the library is no longer a library, Apple claims they no longer make “stores” — they make experiences, and will use the site for events, art exhibitions and classes in addition to hawking their shiny, mass-market wares to thirsty consumers.

But either way, one day soon, some starry-eyed millennial could leave her $1200-a-month rented sunroom, traipse past this beautiful building and have no idea that its history predated Steve Jobs.

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In 1896, Washington had private libraries, and subscription libraries, but no public library.

But not for lack of trying: Theodore Noyes, a newspaper editor, had been working his tooshie off for over five years to get the district a public library. Because the federal government oversees city life in DC, a public library required an Act of Congress. (Thank goodness we resolved that bureaucratic nightmare in the subsequent 100 years.)

Finally, in 1896, the legislation passed, giving the District the permission – but not the funds – to create a library. All they had to do was find a location.

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Big Bird, overconfident as always.

Three years passed without a location for the library, which was fine, since there was no actual money for the library either. But all that changed on one fateful day. January 12, 1899, to be exact.

Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House (as you do) when he ran into a member of the library board, who told him of their struggle to find a space. Carnegie immediately agreed to donate $250,000 to build a library, as long as Congress could provide $10,000 annually for upkeep.

Problem solved, Carnegie-style.

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While dropping a quarter mil on a public library project you just heard about sounds crazy to most of us, this was kinda Carnegie’s thing. The steel magnate liked investing his massive fortune into libraries all around the U.S. and in his native Scotland.

Carnegie was a big believer in the self-made man, and thought that by providing the tools to poor Americans (i.e. big ole books), any individual could read, study and better himself, and therefore increase his prosperity and his social status.

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Carnegie typically fronted the money, but required the local community to justify the existence of the library, and also run and staff it. You know – it’s a hand up, not a handout.

His libraries had a novel (heh) new style where visitors perused the stacks themselves, rather than depending on a librarian to go fetch a book from storage upon request. So, if you’ve ever enjoyed wandering through aisles of books in a library, running your hands along the spines, you can thank Andrew Carnegie and his desire to cut staffing costs.  

And, finally, it had to be free. Like, really free, to anyone.

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Turns out, people are really willing to play by all your snooty rules if you’re willing to pay for them. Despite three years of hemming and hawing, as soon as Carnegie offered the cash, there suddenly appeared not one, but two perfect sites for the library: Mt. Vernon Square, and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Then – and this will sound more like the Washington you know and loathe – there had to be a fierce debate about which of the two sites was better suited for a library. And lest you think that history is just for a book on a shelf, the argument rested on Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 drawings for the city’s layout and what was designated “public” space.

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Ultimately, it only took the board a week to pick a place, scared of losing the Carnegie cash. They went with Mt. Vernon, based loosely on century-old plans by a long-dead engineer, although critics complained the decision had been rushed and that the city lost a “park” in the process.

The library was opened in 1903, with a total of $375,000 coming from Carnegie, who attended the ribbon-cutting rather reluctantly. By then, he had moved on to building other libraries, and had little desire to mingle with the “Washington people.”

And now, 114 years later, the building will serve as a gathering place for “Washington people” to purchase devices, upon which they will engage in debates about policies; use apps for self-improvement; and maybe, just maybe, read up on the history of that gorgeous building on a witty, wonderful, life-affirming, sibling-created history blog. Or, you know, just online shop. Andrew Carnegie, the self-made businessman, would have loved Etsy.

 

Sources:

Carnegie Library Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)

CityLab

AP

Library of Congress

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