History Nebraska Blog

Lincoln's Carnegie Library Serves Homeless, Fights Hunger

Andrew Carnegie

It's hard to imagine a world without free access to the unlimited knowledge offered by public libraries. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, this was not the reality but rather an audacious dream of the steel tycoon turned philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Before Carnegie started his grant program to build libraries all across the United States, easy access to books was largely restricted to those with enough money for a private collection or access to subscription services. People in different towns from all across Nebraska saw free access to books as an opportunity to make a lasting impact in their communities, so they set to work applying for grants to build Carnegie libraries. Of the 1,689 public libraries in the United States, 69 were in Nebraska. Towns who applied were responsible for providing the land, purchasing all of the books, and providing salaries for librarians. Women, especially ladies' clubs, were often the driving force behind raising the necessary funds to match Carnegie's grant. They found creative ways to raise money through events like box socials (box lunches would be auctioned off) to bring the whole community together.

History Nebraska has been working hard to get as many of these Carnegies listed on the National Register as possible. Today these buildings are not always suitable for continued use as libraries, but that does not mean that these treasures should be torn down. As we have traveled the state to see old Carnegies, we have been impressed by the creative new uses that communities have found for these buildings. It was a community-effort this construct these buildings, and it often takes a community effort to save them.

The Northeast Branch Carnegie Library. Photo courtesy of Neighborhoods Inc.

Dignity is one of the core values of Lincoln's Matt Talbot Kitchen & Outreach (MTKO). Believing that all people deserve to be treated with dignity is far more sweeping than just providing for a human's basic needs. To affirm a person's dignity is to acknowledge the fundamental human need for beauty. Andrew Carnegie believed in this. The libraries that he helped to build were not only intended to promote literacy for all; they were also beautiful. We know this because so many communities in Nebraska continue to take great pride in their Carnegies.

Lincoln's Northeast Carnegie is now home of Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach

The Matt Talbot Kitchen provides food, shelter, and counseling services to Lincoln's working poor and homeless. When the organization outgrew its old facility at 19th & O, it sought out a new home that would not only have enough space for all of its programs but that would also be a place of dignity and beauty.  The former Northeast Branch Carnegie Library turned out to be just the place.

The entrance of Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach

The building had served Lincoln as a library until it closed in 1982. In 1992, a developer moved the building from its original location to make way for a Walgreens. In 2008 MTKO purchased the building and began collaborating with Sinclair Hille Architects to design an addition that would complement the existing structure's Neo-Classic Revival architecture. Susanne Blue, the director of MTKO, describes the building as "a treasure" and an "asset to the community because of its historic status and beautiful presence." She especially loves the extra-large windows and the unique woodwork inside the building.

The 2008 addition has provided MTKO the space it needs for its extensive programming

When Blue gives tours of the building, people are intrigued by its history and sometimes even remember fondness when it served as a library. The people who come to see the building because of its history often leave even more impressed by its current use. MTKO's outreach so inspired one such visitor that she began volunteering.

When communities across Nebraska first chose to create beautiful public spaces by building Carnegies, they were making a lasting investment. The bright future of the old Northeast Branch Carnegie building, now the home to the Matt Talbot Kitchen & Outreach, is living proof of this. The old Carnegie buildings of Nebraska continue to provide new opportunities for the communities that they serve. The Northeast Branch Carnegie was built because of a belief that all people deserve the chance for self-betterment. The Matt Talbot Kitchen is continuing this vision by ensuring that the most vulnerable also have access to this opportunity.

To learn more about the National Register of Historic Places, contact us at 402-471-4775 or email david.calease@nebraska.gov.

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