Friday, September 27, 2013

The Carnegie Library that Led to Hundreds More

Arguably the most significant of the 1,689 libraries that Andrew Carnegie funded in the United States is the one in Fairfield, Iowa. It is ground zero when it comes to his world-wide construction of libraries.  It was the first in the United States that he built outside of his steel empire in Pennsylvania and the first community that he had no connection with and the first he constructed at the bequest of another.

Iowa senator James Wilson, who lived in Fairfield, ought be eligible for library saint hood, along with Carnegie, for asking Carnegie to fund this library for his home town, in effect launching Carnegie's unprecedented library philanthropy.  That was in 1892.  By 1903 Carnegie had funded 44 libraries in Iowa, raising the number of public libraries in the state to 77.  In the next fifteen years Iowa gained 59 more libraries, all but six provided by Carnegie.  And so it was across the nation, a quarter-century library boom thanks to Carnegie.

Fairfield's library was a three-story hulk of a building that might still be used as a library today, but instead now houses a museum and collegiate offices.  The new more patron-friendly, one-story library is just two blocks away.  It emphasizes the modern computer-oriented age with "ain'tjustbooks" as the password for its WIFI.

Carnegie also provided a library for the now-defunct Parsons College in Fairfield, one of seven academic libraries he was responsible for in Iowa and the only one that has been razed.  It met its demise in 2000 some twenty-five years after the campus was taken over by the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) that was initially established by the Yogi of the same name in Santa Barbara in 1973.  It acquired the Parsons campus a year later, bringing to Iowa its unique Consciousness-Based theory of education with Transcendental Meditation practiced by all its students, faculty and staff.  

I gave the campus a wander in search of its library before learning that the original was no more.  MUM may have the most diverse student body anywhere with nearly two-thirds of its 1,200 students from outside the US.  Along with a contingent of 77 students linked to the college from South Africa, more than eighty countries are represented in its student body.  As I meandered about the campus, I overhead quite a few conversing in their native language.

The campus conveyed an otherworldly aura.  There was no hint of a party atmosphere.  The literature promoting the school emphasized the satisfaction the students have with their experience there.  It cited a survey that said 73% of its students said they would choose this school again, compared to 32% for other schools--86% said it prepared them for caring for their physical and mental health compared to the 22% national norm.  That was the most lopsided of all the survey questions.

As in Nebraska, pride of place wasn't restricted to school, but also spilled over into state and community.  The state's NPR station was featuring a week-long series of one-hour shows on famous Iowans.  The only show I caught was devoted to famous fictional Iowans.  Number one was Ray Kinsella from "Field of Dreams."  Others were Captain Kirk from "Star Trek," Marian the Librarian from "The Music Man," Gilbert Grape from "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," Hawkeye of the Avengers comic strip and Radar from "M*A*S*H."  They were all said to personify qualities typical of Iowans--strength of conviction bordering on stubbornness, purity of heart, loyalty, sincerity, wholesomeness, hard-worker, and a degree of healthy innocence and integrity.  

Local radio shows emphasized state pride except when they were complaining about President Obama and his health care program.  A Des Moines station did a story on its Saturday Farmer's Market.  There are some 8,000 such markets around the country and its had recently been ranked number two among all of them, second only to one in Seattle that had the advantage of being coastal and including fish.

Mount Pleasant presented the eleventh and final Carnegie library on my route across Iowa.  The first eight still served as their community library, but the final three had all been replaced.  Mount Pleasant's, built in 1903, was now part of Southeastern Iowa Community College.  It was solidly built and looked as if it were good for another century or more.

The town didn't build a new library, but rather converted a portion of its former high school into a library. It seemed to be haunted by delinquent students, as there were signs declaring it a Bullying Free Zone and warning that "Disruptive minors" would be banned for one week or permanently, signs I'd never seen before in a library.

From Mount Pleasant I had crossing the Mississippi as the next great event to look forward to before I could begin feeling the anticipation of the Carnegies of Illinois.  It is always a great moment to cross the Mississippi.  East to west or west to east does not matter.  As I entered Illinois for my home stretch, I could feel a surge of my own state pride.  I've been cycling past corn waiting to be harvested through four states since eastern Colorado and by far the heartiest has been that of Illinois.  It was more than eight feet tall, a veritable forest almost to the roadside, providing a legitimate shield from the wind. 

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