The year is 1883. Daniel J Harris files the first plans for a town in the northwest corner of Washington State that he calls Fair Haven. The infamous volcano on Krakatoa erupts, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show brings the romance of the untamed west to urban audiences. The writer Franz Kafka is born and the composer Richard Wagner dies. And the wealthy American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie opens a library in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland.

In a campaign that lasted until 1929, Carnegie went on to fund the building of 2,509 libraries in over a dozen countries. He was an avid reader from a young age and, after emigrating from Scotland with his family as a youth, grew to believe that reading and learning allowed people to improve themselves and their lives. He also held the belief that the best thing he could do with his incredible wealth, amassed from his investments and the sale of his massive steel company, was best used to serve others.

The trademark Carnegie staircase and lantern lead visitors to the library’s entryway. Photo courtesy: Steven Arbuckle.

One way he put his beliefs into action was to donate funds for the construction of public libraries. He had a few demands for those that asked for his help, including that the library must be publicly funded and open to all, and that the community must donate the land on which the library would be built.

And so at the beginning of the 1900s, local philanthropist CX Larrabee agreed to donate part of the land he owned in the brand new town of Fairhaven. But he also added an interesting provision of his own. According to local historian Jeff Jewel at the Whatcom Museum, Larrabee’s father had been an alcoholic and, as a result, Larrabee grew up to be a teetotaler. His demand was that the library would have a separate entrance to be used by working men. That way the local laborers, dressed in their grubby work clothes and smelling of sweat, fish or the bay could head to the library after work and spend their evenings reading, rather than drinking at the saloons.

By early 1904, the library was up and running. A visitor would climb the broad staircase, which Carnegie said symbolized a person’s elevation through learning. After passing beneath the building’s prominent lanterns, which symbolize the enlightenment offered within, a staircase to the left of the entryway allowed workers to access the basement. On one side of the basement’s lobby is the “fireplace room” which runs the length of the building and was most likely the area designated for these men to congregate. On the other side is the smaller “northwest room.” The rest of the basement has been renovated over the years to include modern restrooms and other infrastructure. Following the staircase upward, the visitor arrives on a large landing that features a box office and a doorway leading to an auditorium. This large, open room dominating the upper floor of the building, as well as those in the basement, are available for public use through the library’s offices.

A stained glass window livens up the interior of the library. Photo courtesy: Steven Arbuckle.

The main floor of the library has been renovated often enough and heavily enough that it appears modern but even with the smooth white walls and hanging acoustic tile ceiling, there are still a few trademarks of the Carnegie era to be seen. The first libraries in the United States followed a “closed stack” system – the reader would approach the service desk, where they would request a book. The librarian would disappear into a back room where all the volumes were stored and return to hand the book over to the reader.

In order to cut costs, Carnegie devised the “open stack” system which put all of the bookshelves out in the open, so the reader could track down the item they wanted and bring it to a circulation desk where the librarian would check the book out to them. Because a reader might be tempted to simply walk out with the book they wanted, it was decided that a very large circulation desk would be situated close to the doorway to provide a physical and psychological deterrent to theft. One librarian named this new innovation “the battleship,” and it proved so successful that it has remained the standard for libraries ever since.

In addition to the collection of books, magazines, audio books and DVDs, this main floor also houses a spacious children’s room complete with kids’ books and activities. It also contains a “quiet area” with computers that can be reserved for use by the public, and a counter that allows guests to bring their own computers to take advantage of a wireless internet connection.

The rest of the space is given over to a surprising amount of seating that allows readers to settle in comfortably to enjoy their reading. Don’t miss this intersection of form, function and history, located at the top of Fairhaven’s historic district.

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