Reporter's Notebook

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The Gift of a Public Library

The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.

For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.

It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.

Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.

The Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, Kansas (Courtesy of the Carnegie Center for the Arts)

In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.

The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine
The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine Deborah Fallows

We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.

James Fallows, banking the Steel Edition Cirrus SR-22 en route to Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

In Eastport, it is difficult to rise before the fishermen do; they are often out by dawn, returning with a catch before most of us see the sun, and then they head to the local Waco Diner, which is ready for them with bacon and coffee.

Close in to shore this morning, seagulls cry back and forth to each other. Winches lower lobster traps onto boats for setting in the bay. A few townspeople arrive at the new town pier in pickups stocked with their fishing gear. They cast their lines some six feet down from the pier to the water at high tide, and as much as 25 at low tide. The tidal difference is greatest when the moon is full, as it is now. I watched the fishermen catching mackerel, smelt, and herring for their dinner tables.

The port’s pilot boat glides silently offshore; I know a big ship is scheduled to arrive at the port this week, maybe like the Industrial Ruby, which came and went last week, loaded up with wood pulp for China. It’s a Dutch-built and -owned ship, registered in Liberia, with Russian and Ukrainian officers and a Filipino crew.

Looking at the piers of Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

Many elements in Eastport help you touch the whole world, in a hugely romantic way rather than the fearing and dark way in which many elements in our hometown touch the world. Ships heading for China; evening flights departing the east coast for early arrivals in London or maybe Paris, their lights flickering and their huge jet engines barely whispering in our ears.

Canada is right across the water; from Eastport, you see the island of Campobello, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers with their family. Within a few days in August of 1921, FDR contracted a sudden series of symptoms that were finally diagnosed as polio. Eventually, he was ferried across the water to Eastport, and taken by train to New York. His dark-red house with the dark-green roof, surprisingly comfortably rambling, still stands at the top of lawns that slope down to the water. His small sailboat sits dry on the lawn. The trains have long since gone away.

Downtown Eastport this week, from its pier (James Fallows)

On land, workers are hammering at Eastport’s 1887 Masonic Block, owned by the Tides Institute, replacing the crumbling wood beams with monstrous steel ones to keep the building standing for two centuries more, at least. It’s worth the trouble to be sure that the west side of Water Street remains solid with its row of red brick buildings.

New steel beams going into the Masonic Block (Deborah Fallows)

Just uphill is the Peavey Memorial Library, which desperately needs some attention like the Masonic Block is getting so that more of Peavey’s bricks don’t crumble. Like many other public libraries, they are looking every which way to find the funds for this. There was a music festival behind the library all weekend, free but for library donations. There’s a thermometer drawn on a poster out front marking donations rising like degrees, and according to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport’s biweekly paper, a grant writer from Bangor, Maine, has been hired to seek money from outside Eastport.