In the fall of 1883 a group of local citizens organized with the intention of founding a public library in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Within a year or so, after several meetings and fundraising events, the People’s Library Association was founded with Julius Kurtz serving as president. A small library was soon opened in a grocery store on Seventh Avenue (and 13th Street) with about 100 books. Fundraising efforts continued, although efforts progressed slowly in the coming years.
In early 1899 the library association petitioned Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) to provide funds to construct a dedicated library building. Carnegie had amassed a fortune in the steel industry in the late 19th Century. When he sold his Carnegie Steel Company in 1901 – it was merged to become U.S. Steel – his personal share came to over $225 million, making him the richest man in the world for a time. Carnegie donated large amounts of his wealth to various scholarly causes and up until his death he was one of the world’s foremost philanthropists.
The wealthy Carnegie had been providing funds to build public library buildings since 1883, and eventually helped finance as many as 2,509 such facilities around the world. The first was in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, and the first in the United States was in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Carnegie only provided funds for the actual construction of the library building and not for the property or the contents (including books) of the facility. Carnegie had some strict rules that had to be agreed to before he provided the funds: A proven public need for a library, the promise of free service to all, a secured site, and a financial plan to maintain the library. The financial plan usually meant raising the taxes of the local citizens. Some locations, such as New Castle in 1901, refused the stipulations amid bitter debate and turned down Carnegie’s offer of funding. Carnegie is sometimes criticized for lavishly funding the libraries and other institutions of social benefit and higher learning, while overworking and mistreating the thousands of employees within his vast empire
Carnegie pledged $50,000 in September 1899 pending the Beaver Falls Library Association working out the final details. A site, home to Adolph Yokel’s shoe store, was soon acquired on Seventh Avenue (and 13th Street) – and a smaller adjoining lot – for a total of $14,000. The association was also successful in getting the Beaver Falls School Board to agree to help support and maintain the library. Final approval from Carnegie’s representatives came in December 1900.
Frederick J. Osterling (1865-1934), a prominent Pittsburgh-based architect, was soon retained and he designed a massive Neoclassical-style building. In June 1903 the impressive-looking Carnegie Free Library, the twentieth such facility in the country, was completed and opened for inspection in Beaver Falls. It featured two stories plus a full basement level. In September the facility was formally opened, although circulation services (lending of books) were not implemented until the coming December. It is said that Carnegie and his associates, discouraged by its grandeur and style, required that future Carnegie libraries be more modest in nature.
The Carnegie Free Library adhered to a self-service or “open stacks” policy, where patrons could personally peruse the collections and select their own books. The collection soon grew to include 2,872 volumes. Miss Mariam Morse served as the first librarian, but was succeeded by Hazel (Clifton) Kennedy from 1905-1917, Elsie Rayle from 1917-1956, Edith Fern Medley from 1956-1966, Adbul Khan from 1967-1975, Nell Thomas from 1975-1977, Karl Helicher from 1977-1981, Elizabeth Spano from 1981-1984, Linda Taddeo from 1984-2001, and Jean Ann Barsotti beginning in 2001.
From its opening the building served as a popular community center and meeting place and had additional uses in the coming years. The second floor of the building served as the home for the city’s 8th graders from 1916 until 1931. Years later, the school board’s administrative offices and the Beaver Falls Historical Society set up shop in the building as well.
The library eventually became part of the larger Beaver County Library System, which was founded in 1971. In September 1985 the building was added to the National Register of Historical Places (NRHP), the only such federally designated place within the city of Beaver Falls. The Carnegie Free Library, with over 54,000 volumes in its collection, is still the most impressive building in all of Beaver Falls.
Between 1883-1929 a total of 2,509 Carnegie Libaries were built worldwide, with 1,689 being located in the United States. (c1908)
The Carnegie Library in Beaver Falls was built on Seventh Avenue, at the corner with 13th Street. (c1908)
A view of the Carnegie Library along Seventh Avenue. (2010)
The Carnegie Library, the first public library to be built in Beaver County, has been in operation for over 106 years. (2010)
(Oct 2014) Full Size