In any community, buildings get re-modeled and re-purposed all the time. It’s a sign of the times, though not always a sign of progress. Any time I walk by a certain location of a chain coffee shop, I recall how in a former life it was an indie bookstore. I spent many, many hours browsing its shelves. Haven’t stepped foot in there since it turned over.

That came to mind when I read about the opening just days ago of an Apple store in Washington, D.C., in the site of what was once a majestic Carnegie library.

The building hadn’t been used as a library for decades. It became an event space and then a city museum, among other uses. Apple agreed to spend bundles on a renovation. Still, what was once one of the city’s public treasures is now a commercial space selling iPhones.

I have a soft spot for libraries. I must have visited my local one a few times a week as a kid, and it had a role in both creating and feeding my reading habit. Today I continue to use the library frequently.

The modern public library system owes a lot to Andrew Carnegie. He was a Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist, who had an estimated fortune (in today’s dollars) of $372 billion. Carnegie established a fund to create libraries, and from 1883-1929 the money was used to build 2,509 of them. The majority were in the U.S., but there were also 125 Carnegie libraries in Canada (many still in operation), the U.K., Ireland, Australia, France, the Caribbean and more.

What a network that formed. We need vibrant public libraries. A report from the Toronto Public Library noted a range of the direct tangible and intangible benefits. Libraries offer:

  • Free access to books and technology.
  • Valuable reference and database services.
  • A quiet place to study.
  • Community spaces for meetings.
  • A place where residents can improve their literacy skills, or enhance their educational and employment opportunities.
  • A dynamic hub, where all sorts of programs engage every demographic.

That’s just some. The report said that every dollar invested in the library generates almost six times that in economic impact.

The late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said that library cuts are just another way that a society has found to destroy itself. So don’t shelve libraries. Check them out.

Asimov also called a library “a space ship that will take you the farthest reaches of the universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you, and a gateway to a happier and more useful life.”

When I think of that new Apple store in D.C., I lament the ghost of the old Carnegie library there. Sure, iPhones and iPads are tools to help you access a world of knowledge. But there are also buildings that house that knowledge, and that spark our curiosity. You don’t need to pay a dime. All you need is a library card.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 15, 2019


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