For more than 30 years, the residents of Beatrice fought to have a library. They kept books in their homes, amassed collections of information and tried in vain to find a permanent place for people to gain knowledge. It took the generosity of a Pennsylvania millionaire to make a permanent library in Beatrice a reality.
The public library was established in 1893 on the second floor of the post office. It consisted of two small rooms, one room to house the volumes and one room as a place to read them. The residents pushed for a larger, more deserving home to the library, and then in 1902, along came Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie spoke throughout his life about the impact Scottish Poet Robert Burns and other writers had on him and his love of reading and wanted to make sure everyone had the opportunity to read. The residents of Beatrice applied for a grant from Carnegie in December 1902 and received $20,000 from Carnegie in 1903. "This grant by Carnegie was a statement about the viability of the community and, symbolically, it was an important event," Beatrice Library Director and local historian Laureen Riedesel said.
Oliver Pollak, author of a forthcoming book on Nebraska's Carnegie Libraries, said the libraries speak to the vision of the cities' leaders at the time. "It was a recognition that there should be a center where there are books," said Pollak, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
But, receiving money for a library involved more than just asking. To receive grant money, cities had to organize a public library board, provide a site with convenient access and natural light all the way around the building, and have room to expand in the future. The city also had to agree to maintain a continuous existence of a public library in the community and provide a public funding source for the library.
Carnegie also had to approve the building plans before construction began. "Carnegie wanted natural light in all his buildings, the library had to be able to use natural light from all sides, it couldn't be next to any other buildings," Riedesel said. The citizens of Beatrice purchased lots five and six of block 36 in Midland Township for $1,600 by raising private funds to house their library.
Unlike later Carnegie libraries, which were required to follow more stringent plans, the Beatrice Carnegie Building was early enough that architect George Burlinghof of Lincoln was given more freedom with his design. "This library was done before Carnegie had set plans for his buildings, so we got to do things that later Carnegies didn't get to and because of that we have one of the most elaborate Carnegies ever built," Riedesel said.
Based on buildings from the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, also called the Omaha World's Fair, Burlinghof saw the Beatrice Carnegie Building as his chance to showcase what he could accomplish. When the library opened on Jan. 1, 1904, the headline in the Beatrice Daily Sun proclaimed it the "The Most Pleasurable Event in Beatrice's History." "I don't think they were exaggerating," Riedesel said. "In terms of Beatrice history it represents an important time for the city. It was at the end of the city's boom and it brought hope during a time when people were asking if the city would survive."
While the upstairs was designed as the main storage for more than 16,000 volumes, the lower level included a large open area designed for lectures, exhibits and debates. "Carnegie saw libraries as the people's university and wanted a place where people could come read up on a subject they were interested in and then attend lectures to expand on what they had read," Riedesel said.
Carnegie actually asked not to have his name on the buildings he financed, he instead preferred to have a representation of the rays of the rising sun and the words "Let there be Light," on the front of the building.
The area north and east of the library was turned into Charles Park in 1909 after the death of James Charles, a prominent farmer from just south of Beatrice, who donated money to establish a park in the city.
Charles Park and the Carnegie Building are located on Fifth and Elk streets, just south of the Beatrice Public Schools Administration Building and across the street from Beatrice Middle School.
"At the time there wasn't any parks in the city and they decided that it would be great to have a park downtown near the library," Riedesel said.
During the 1920s the explosion of the children's section of the library forced it to be moved from an alcove upstairs to the lower level. At the time, the library was projected to hold more than 24,000 volumes. At its 50th anniversary, the library was home to more than 27,000 volumes and plans were under way to remodel the building. In the late 1950s, all of the original oak furniture was replaced, only two tables, a chair and the main library desk remain and are still on display in the building. The building was completely remodeled in the early 1960s. Among the changes were lowered ceilings that blocked out the windows, wood paneling and new carpet.
In 1976, the Carnegie Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In its application, the board noted that the building had retained its original character throughout the exterior with only one exception, the addition of modern entrance doors.
In 1980, a ramp was added to the building, marking the last major renovation before the library was moved to its present location on the corner of 16th and Court streets in 1991. At the time of the move, the Carnegie Building, originally designed to hold 16,000 volumes, was home to a collection of 58,000. "We had books everywhere, we turned the radiator covers around and used them for shelves," said Riedesel, who has been the library's director since 1977.
The building was used by Beatrice Public Schools from 1991 until 1999 and again from 2002 until 2004.
Today, the oldest remaining Carnegie Building in the state and one of the most elaborate in the country, sits empty.
© 2005 Carnegie Center, Inc. All