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Carnegie Library in Bismarck


The story of Andrew Carnegie is well known. This poor boy from Scotland immigrated to America and became rich through his Carnegie Steel Corporation. In 1900, Carnegie sold his steel company to banker J.P. Morgan for 480 million dollars, whereupon Morgan said: “Congratulations, Mr. Carnegie, you are the richest man in the world."

Carnegie set about to give away some of that money, most famously, to build library buildings, contributing 55 million dollars for 2,509 libraries worldwide, with 1,679 built in the U.S. in 46 states. Eleven of those libraries were built in North Dakota. One of those was in Bismarck.

On this date in 1916, the Bismarck Tribune reported that the city of Bismarck had agreed to spend $2,500 annually to maintain a new library, if the Carnegie Commission would build it. The odd thing about Carnegie Libraries in North Dakota was that the Carnegie people provided money to build a building, but did not provide any money for books, librarians or janitors.

Cynics of that time criticized millionaire Carnegie for building libraries as his own ‘Temples of Fame,’ for these buildings became perpetual monuments to his name in thousands of cities for as long as those libraries would stand. Carnegie also built Carnegie Hall in New York City and Carnegie-Mellon University. Critics complained that Carnegie’s fortune had been made upon the hard labor of workingmen in his air-polluting steel mills and that his profits came about from political manipulations and high tariffs that shut out foreign competition.

Still, Carnegie’s motives were noble, for he wrote that public libraries were places “where the treasures of the world contained in books” would “be open to all forever, without money and without price.”

And so citizens of Bismarck rejoiced greatly over the $25,000 grant for a Carnegie Library on Thayer Avenue. Designed by local architect Frederick W. Keith, the Colonial Style library was ready for patronage in 1918. It was a “beautiful new home” for the city’s books, 3,000 of which had been donated by local book-lovers.

The reading room had “unusual charm,” for the walls were painted in “light tints, with the woodwork finished in ivory, [and] the chairs and tables in mahogany.” A special, noiseless carpeting, made of cork, made it a quiet sanctuary for readers.

Bismarck eventually outgrew its relatively-small Carnegie Library and it was replaced by the modern-style Veteran’s Memorial Public Library in 1963.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Commission Makes Library Appropriation,” Bismarck Tribune , March 7, 1916, p. 1.

“Carnegie Library For Bismarck,” Bismarck Tribune , February 8, 1916, p. 1.

“Plans Accepted For Bismarck’s Public Library,” Bismarck Tribune , October 12, 1916, p. 1.

“Bismarck Library Plans Completed,” Bismarck Tribune , April 17, 1917, p. 8.

“Bismarck City Library Now Fully Domiciled in Beautiful New Home,” Bismarck Tribune , July 31, 1918, p. 5.

“Carnegie Library,” Bismarck Tribune , June 11, 1907, p. 2.

“Veteran’s Memorial Public Library,” Bismarck Café.com,
www.bismarckcafe.com/blogs/wiki/veterans-memorial-pu . .
accessed on December 23, 2013.

Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” North American Review , no. CCCXCI (June, 1889), "http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/AIH19th/Carnegie.html" http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/AIH19th/Carnegie.html , accessed on February 15, 2014.

“Libraries,” Carnegie Corporation of New York, "http://carnegie.org/about-us/foundation-history/about-andrew-carnegie/carnegie-for-kids/libraries/" http://carnegie.org/about-us/foundation-history/about-andrew-carnegie/carnegie-for-kids/libraries/ , accessed on February 15, 2014.