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.
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 oftentimes 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) that would bring the whole community together.
History Nebraska has been working hard to try and get as many of these “Carnegies” listed on the National Register as we can. 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 North Platte Carnegie Library, circa 1920-1930
Over its 108 year history, the North Platte Carnegie Library has already lived many lives and served many different generations. Today the building is home to a children’s museum. When grandparents visit the museum with their grandchildren, many can remember attending the trade school that used to operate in the building and some can even remember when it was a library. Throughout all of these generations and uses, the building has always been a center for learning. MenDi McCuiston, the current director of the North Platte Area Children’s Museum, calls the building inspirational, because “all the learning that has occurred inside these walls, leaves a strong mark on our North Platte history.”
The North Platte Carnegie Library is now the North Platte Area Children’s Museum
Part of this building’s legacy is as a beautiful and easily recognizable landmark in North Platte. McCuiston describes the building as timeless and welcoming in its appearance. When the library opened in 1912 The North Platte Tribune described it as “a library of which we can feel justly proud” and for the “benefit of all citizens.” As a children’s museum, the building continues to be a space for everyone. Its open design perfectly accommodates the life-size exhibits like the tractor, pirate ship, and Construction World that invite youngsters to play, explore, and use their imagination.
Adapting the building into a children’s museum has been a creative and rewarding process.
The old building has its quirks, but the Museum’s caretakers have made creative adaptations. For example, the exposed pipes in the basement have been painted with fun colors and faces. The adaptive reuse of old buildings sometimes requires imaginative thinking to turn problems into benefits. But preventing the loss of a Carnegie or any old community treasure is worth it. McCuiston says that it would be “a shame to demolish any Carnegie building” and recommends spending “time coming up with ideas on how to utilize the building before resorting to tearing it down.”
McCuiston has experienced firsthand the reward of keeping the North Platte Carnegie. Some of her favorite memories have happened in this building with her daughters and now her grandkids. While it may no longer house books, North Platte’s old Carnegie library building is still full of stories, and as long as it stands it will continue to be a place where people are invited to learn and create lasting memories.
The interior of the North Platte Carnegie Library, circa 1920-1930