Friday, 12 June 2015

Grahamstown Gazette: the Carnegie Library featurette

For the June edition of the Grahamstown Gazette, I was asked to write an feature on the Thames Carnegie Library building - the building which is currently home to The Treasury research centre.

Carnegie Free Library

Much like its modern neighbour, the Thames Carnegie Free Library building was not without controversy when it was built in 1905. 

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-born philanthropist who had made his fortune as a steel magnate. He funded hundreds of free libraries around the English-speaking world, including eighteen in New Zealand. Having benefitted from free access to private libraries when he was young, Mr. Carnegie believed in the value of lifelong learning and free education for the public. 'If one boy in each library district,’ he once said, ‘by having access to one of these libraries is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson's four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain.'
As early as 1902, the citizens of Thames had begun petitioning Andrew Carnegie to help fund a free library for Thames.  He agreed in 1904, contributing £2000 to the building of Thames’ library. The Carnegie Library replaced the town’s Mechanics’ Institute library, which had served the gold field from the same site since the 1870s. 

Unlike typical buildings of the period, the Library was constructed in brick instead of timber, with a distinctive facade, pressed metal ceilings and huge windows to let the light in. There were few other buildings so architecturally unique in the district. These features are still intact today.

When the new library’s foundation stone was laid in 1905, the Observer mused that ‘some warm criticism has been passed on this salubrious district for ‘soiling its hands with money made at the expense of sweated thousands,’’ in reference to Andrew Carnegie’s grant towards the opening of the library. General opinion seemed to be that a town as wealthy as Thames should not be relying on outside donations for such major public amenities. One writer at The Free Lance went so far as to call our library an ‘abasement,’ applauding Wellington City for not similarly submitting to the same ‘humiliation’ of asking for a donation from Mr. Carnegie.

Later, in 1906, more controversy ensured over how the Thames Borough Council defined the term ‘free library.’ Libraries were going through something of a revolution in the early twentieth century, and the stipulation that all Carnegie Libraries should offer their contents to the entire community free of any charge was a new concept for Thames to grasp. The council, it turned out, was charging five shillings a year for subscription fees. 

The Thames Carnegie Library was a much-loved focal point for the town throughout most of last century, until the library moved to new premises in 1990. Several community groups made good use of the empty rooms in the interim, but by 2008 the building was worse for wear and in dire need of earthquake strengthening. Fortunately, TCDC decided to restore rather than demolish the old building, and The Coromandel Heritage Trust was able to rent and reopen it to the public as The Treasury in 2009.
Today the Carnegie Free Library building is fully restored and still a place of learning and discovery for the whole region.

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