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 oftentimes takes a community-effort to save them.
The Neligh Carnegie Library, circa 1920-1930
Downtown Neligh is experiencing a revival—old buildings in a state of disrepair are fixed-up, and small businesses move in. Heidi Rethmeier’s unusual home is right in the thick of all of this renewed energy and focus. When she purchased the old Carnegie building, there was very little interest in the building. Several small businesses had tried to use it but ultimately ran into too many issues with ADA Compliance. Fortunately, the building captured Rethmeier’s imagination, and she saw the potential for a unique residential home.
The former Carnegie library in Neligh is now a private residence.
Rethmeier documented her experience transforming the old library into a home in her blog at oldnelighlibrary.blogspot.com. She describes herself as “very passionate about repurposing something that was once loved and well crafted” and the experience of working on the building as “extremely gratifying and therapeutic.” Rethmeier sought a balance between maintaining the building’s integrity and making sure that it was a livable space for her family.
The interior of Rethmeier’s home.
The great care that Rethmeier put into rehabilitating this building has paid off. She now has a beautiful home with original oak flooring and woodwork. Some of her home’s favorite features are the massive windows, the cozy fireplace, open floorplan, and the 14-foot ceilings. The words “Public Library” is still etched in stone above the front door, so she occasionally has folks stop by in hopes of finding a book. Rethmeier doesn’t mind, and playfully adds that her “80-pound lab tends to startle them.”
For Rethmeier, fixing up an old Carnegie not only gave her family a new place to call “home”; it was also a creative way to invest in her community. Downtown revitalization can be sparked by the initiative of a person taking an interest in an old building. Believing in the possibilities of reusing old buildings shows respect for a community’s past and a belief in its future.