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Lansing's Carnegie Library: a cultural legacy from a civilized past

Former Carnegie Library from Shiawassee Street
Former Carnegie Library from Shiawassee Street
Photo by the author

In times long past, it was customary for wealthy men to give substantial sums of money to cultural institutions to provide uplift to local betterment activities. Usually, these sums came from men who had made their money in the age of industrialism following the Civil War. These sources included the telegraph, oil, railroads and of course steel. One such steel magnate was Andrew Carnegie of Pittsburgh, who not merely acquired much wealth, but was also committed to giving it away in the pursuit of his private ethical quest to serve humanity. One way to accomplish this was to give money to spread literacy through public libraries, which-- Carnegie hoped-- would stimulate a more informed electorate and labor force. Indeed, he bequeathed enough money to fund some 1,600 of them to the American people during his lifetime and after his death in 1919. One of these buildings was located in Lansing, Michigan.

History of the building

Carnegie contributed some $35,000 to the Lansing community in 1902 to construct a new public library. Local architect Edwin A. Bowd designed a rather somber structure with a neoclassical fa├žade to house the growing collection. The cornerstone was laid in 1903 and the building opened in 1905. It served as Lansing's chief library until the present downtown building was completed in 1964-65. This newer library has been discussed by the author in a previous article (see this article at The former Carnegie Library became known as the Old Central Building of Lansing Community College, and originally extended back to Genesee Street. It has since been reduced in size to make way for more recent buildings such as the University Center.

The Carnegie legacy

Andrew Carnegie's legacy is hard to overestimate. He was fond of such expressions as " a man should make all he can and give all he can" and "the man who dies rich dies disgraced." Some even regarded him as the "father of America's middle class." How different he was from the egocentric, self-serving billionaires and millionaires of today! His greatest legacy, therefore, may well be his sense of guilt over his own wealth and his commitment to a higher duty than the mere feathering of one's own nest at the expense of others. His example could well be followed by newly- arrived rich people in our time.