Andrew Carnegie, Libraries and D.C. History

Last week the Library of Congress held a seminar on Andrew Carnegie‘s legacy of establishing public libraries in the United States and other countries, beginning in the late 19th century.

About 1,600 were built in the United States. One of them is at Mount Vernon Square in Washington. Today it houses the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and affiliated Kiplinger Research Library, where I found useful information for my biography of Eliza Scidmore


Carnegie Library D.C.

Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, now home to the Washington Historical Society (Photo: Carol Highsmith/LOC)


At a reception there this month, I met up with Stephen H. Grant, a fellow member of the Washington Biography Group. He’s writing a book on Emily and Henry Folger, who created the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. Steve wrote the lead article in the latest issue of the historical society’s journal.

Gardiner Greene Hubbard

Gardiner Greene Hubbard

‘Dean’ of Science in Washington

An interesting link to my own book project is that one of the founders of the Columbian Historical Society, the precursor of the D.C. Historical Society, was Gardiner Greene Hubbard.

A wealthy lawyer and businessman, Hubbard came to be regarded as a “dean of science” in Washington for supporting a wide range of scientific enterprise.

Most successfully, he backed the experiments that led to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Hubbard also became Bell’s father-in-law when the young scientist married Hubbard’s daughter Mabel.

Hubbard and Bell were both co-founders of the National Geographic Society. Eliza Scidmore became a member in 1890, and some of my research suggests Hubbard may have been an important mentor — and perhaps father figure — to her.

Scidmore’s pioneering travels in Alaska undoubtedly won Hubbard’s admiration, as he himself had a keen interest in Alaska.

Hubbard’s backing may help explain Scidmore’s election to the  National Geographic’s board of managers, the only woman among its leadership. Later, she traveled to Europe with Hubbard and other colleagues representing National Geographic at international conferences.

System of Free Libraries

The Carnegie Library in Washington and similar institutions around the country grew from Andrew Carnegie’s belief in free access to libraries as an instrument of upward mobility. The motive came from his gratitude for access to lending libraries as a boy.

While growing up in Marietta, Ohio, I recall many references to our public library being a Carnegie library, though that had little meaning to me at the time.

Carnegie required communities to demonstrate their commitment to a library by providing the land and partial funding.

Washington County Public Library,

Washington County Public Library, Marietta, Ohio

The Marietta public library was built in 1913 with the help of a $30,000 Carnegie grant. It stood — and still does — atop a mound of land on Fifth Street, a block away from the Catholic school my siblings and I attended.

Conveniently, we could stop in easily any time. And I did. I was the big reader in the family, and checked out a lot of books over the years. Books promised entree to other worlds. And I grew up assuming I would leave home to go and explore that world.

A few years ago, back in town visiting family, I stopped by the library. I found it newly renovated, and lively, with lots of patrons. An encouraging development.

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