Last week the Library of Congress held a seminar on Andrew Carnegie’s legacy of establishing public libraries in the United States and several other countries, beginning in the late 19th century.
About 1,600 were built in the United States. One of them is at Mount Vernon Square in Washington. Today it houses the offices of the D.C. Historical Society and the affiliated Kiplinger Research Library, where I found some very useful information in the early stages of my research on Eliza Scidmore.
I attended a reception at the Historical Society this month for the launch of the latest issue of the society’s journal of Washington history. I enjoyed talking with Stephen H. Grant, a fellow member of the Washington Biography Group. He’s writing a book on Emily and Henry Folger, who created the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, and he wrote the lead article in the journal, a fascinating read. So much little-known history all around us.
An interesting link to my own book project is that one of the founders of the Columbian Historical Society, the precursor of the D.C. Historical Society, was Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a wealthy Boston lawyer and businessman who became a prominent and civic-minded resident of Washington. Because of his strong support for intellectual ventures, many people regarded him as something of a dean of the scientific society that sprung up in Washington in the final decades of the 19th century.
Hubbard was the father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, and together they were instrumental in founding the National Geographic Society. Some evidence from my research suggests he may have been a mentor — perhaps a sort of father figure — to Eliza Scidmore. Curious about Alaska, he undoubtedly had a strong interest in her travels there. It may help explain why Eliza was elected to the National Geographic’s board of managers, the only woman among its leadership. Later, they traveled to Europe together representing the Geographic at international conferences.
Andrew Carnegie saw free libraries as an important instrument of upward mobility, and he undertook his library-building project in gratitude for his own access to lending libraries as a boy. When I was growing up in Marietta, Ohio, there were many references to our local library being a Carnegie library, although that had little meaning to me at the time.
Carnegie required communities to demonstrate their commitment to a library by providing the land and partial funding. The Marietta public library was built in 1913 with the help of a $30,000 Carnegie grant. It stood — and still does — atop a mound of land on Fifth Street, just a block away from the Catholic school I attended. It was conveniently located along the route we followed when walking home, and I vividly recall many magical afternoons spent browsing the shelves for armloads of books that offered passage to other worlds. A few years ago when I was back in town visiting family I stopped by the library and found it renovated and lively, with lots of patrons. An encouraging development.