Next week is National Library Week. Last week I had a chat with Riverside attorney Glenn Beloian about the power of books, the importance of reading in a democratic society, and the joy of being surrounded by books. He remembered with fondness the Carnegie Library in downtown Riverside. “I knew exactly where the Cowboy Sam books were,” he said to me as if transported back to that time and place, “I loved those books.”
I admit I didn’t know the origins of Riverside’s main library, that it was founded in 1901 with a $20,000 Andrew Carnegie library grant. Carnegie, an American industrialist whose fortune made him the wealthiest man of his day, granted 2,509 libraries between 1883-1929, during which time 1,689 where built in the United States. Books and libraries were important to him, he once said because it allows “working boys to acquire knowledge to improve themselves.” His own story reinforced that belief. As an immigrant to this country he was able to work his way into a position of wealth through hard work, determination, and the help of others, including a benefactor who gave the young Carnegie access to his private library. Libraries, and access to the books within their walls, became a significant part of his philosophy of giving back.
All the libraries were built according to The Carnegie Formula: each community had to demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and, provide free service to all. They were designed with “open stacks” which encouraged people to browse and discover books on their own. “Let there be light” was the motto prominently carved at the entrance of the first Carnegie library. When the last grant was made in 1919 there were 3,500 libraries in the US, almost half of them built with Carnegie construction funds.
According to a survey conducted in 1992 by Dr. George Bobinksi, dean of the School of Information and Library Studies at the State University New York at Buffalo, 1,554 of the 1,681 original buildings in the United States still existed, with 911 still used as libraries. Two-hundred seventy-six were unchanged, 286 had been expanded, and 175 had been remodeled; 243 had been demolished while others had been converted to other uses.
Glenn said Joseph Campbell spent five years of daily rigorous reading living in a rented shack and Ray Bradbury received his “college” education in the public library. Both individuals were significant American thinkers and authors. And then he said something I hadn’t thought of before. Books are an amazing gift, he said, you have access to all the great minds. They may not be alive, but they are always there helping you solve current problems. I never thought about books in that way before, but he’s right.
Libraries full of books have helped the world’s greatest civilizations grow. The Riverside main library, Glenn said, is still a well-used popular institution. We agreed that thinking, wondering, and learning are important for any democracy…and the library holds volumes and volumes of knowledge available to all of us.
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