Between 1901 and 1922, 17 libraries from Missoula to Miles City and Havre to Dillon were built in Montana. There’s a new book that takes us back to the turn of the 20th century, when the generosity of a Scottish immigrant and the vision of 17 Montana communities brought libraries to the far reaches of the state.
The seed money for these libraries in Montana and elsewhere across the U.S. came from one of the richest men of the late 19th and 20th century, Andrew Carnegie, who said that a “library outranks any one thing a community can do to benefit its people.”
"His is the original Horatio Alger story," says Kate Hampton, author of a new book The Best Gift: Montana’s Carnegie Libraries.
Carnegie was barely a teen when his family emigrated from Scotland, working his way up from a bobbin boy in a cotton factory to one of the richest men in America.
Hampton says Carnegie credited his success and thirst for knowledge to having access to a library. He thought one way to give back, an obligation he took seriously, was to help fund libraries.
"He thought that public libraries would then be the best gift to give to a community so it could help people help themselves to improve their lot in life," Hampton says
Carnegie provided grants to build but the communities also had to pledge financial support.
"Part of the deal was if Carnegie promised you $10,000, let’s say to build a library, then your community had to promise to pay $1,000, 10 percent of that cost to maintain that library into the future," Hamptons says.
They needed to secure the land for the library.
"That was often one of the items on the checklist that slowed down progress in getting the funding and getting the building built is that agreement should stand and acquiring those properties in town," Hampton says.
Library Director Jacque Scott says there was some disagreements over where to build in Big Timber library.
"The women’s club originally bought the lot the American Legion stands on, so that is 3rd Avenue," Scott says. "And the people in charge, the council, the others groups wanted the building to be on McLeod on Main Street. There was some back and forth about that. They sold that piece of land and purchased this piece of land on McLeod and then they were not sure if they wanted it to face McLeod or face 4th Avenue."
It’s the women’s groups in these communities, like the one in Big Timber, that author Kate Hampton credits with getting these libraries constructed.
"The women’s clubs rallied together," Hampton says. "They often collected names on petitions. They encouraged their city or county commissioners to instigate that correspondence between the community and the Carnegie Corporation in order to secure those funds. These women’s groups really were the heart and soul the library communities."
The women’s groups were there after construction, when Montana was in the grips of depression and support from property taxes went down.
"Keeping those libraries alive and vibrant and centers for information and community really did fall those women’s groups who volunteered as librarians and did fund raisers and kept them going through the 20th century," Hampton says.
The first eight of these libraries in Montana, completed between 1902 and 1907, reflect a freedom of style with domes, stone columns and local materials and some grandly scaled entries and windows. By 1909 design was more restrained, with brick veneer exteriors and rectangular footprints, what became known as the Carnegie Classic design.
Of the 17 Carnegie libraries in Montana, six no longer house libraries but are home to things like an art gallery, museum and law office. Two no longer exist. Glasgow and Great Falls demolished their buildings in in 1965.
Nine are still libraries, like in Big Timber, and still a vibrant part of the community.
"It has been so important to this city and county, that when it was no longer big enough they raised $1.2 million to put on a renovation and expansion," says Big Timber Library Director Jacque Scott.
Saturday afternoon, September 7, the Big Timber Carnegie Library will host the launch of Kate Hampton’s libraries book. Visitors will get the first look at an exhibit that will travel across the state, sharing Andrew Carnegie’s impact in these 17 communities.
"What a lasting legacy,” Scott says.
Montana’s Carnegie Libraries
Great Falls ^
^ Demolished in 1965; * No long a library