The Carnegie Library on Oldpark Road served North Belfast for over one hundred years. This week’s blog traces its origins and the role of the library’s Scottish-born benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, in democratising access to libraries and educational resources.
Over 2,500 Carnegie public libraries were built across the world between the 1880s and 1920s. Sixty-six libraries were constructed in Ireland. They owe their existence to the philanthropic efforts of Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835. He emigrated with his family to Pennsylvania, USA, in 1848. He amassed spectacular wealth through investment in railroad, oil and steel companies. By 1901, when he sold his steel business, he was the wealthiest person in America. Carnegie dedicated the rest of his life to distributing 90% of his fortune to worthwhile causes – some $350 million (around $5.5 billion in today’s money).
Belfast’s first free library – still in use as Belfast Central Library – opened in October 1888. Prior to this, libraries were largely in private hands or required a membership fee to gain access. Belfast Corporation approached the Carnegie Trust in August 1902 seeking funds to build branch libraries in the city. The application was successful, and the Trust donated £15,000 towards the construction of three branch libraries in the north, south and west of the city. The North Belfast branch was built ‘in Tudor style’ at a cost of £5,000. It replaced North Belfast’s temporary branch library located at the North Belfast Working Men’s Club since 1902. Graeme-Watt & Tulloch were appointed as architects for the three Belfast Carnegie libraries. The Oldpark branch was fitted-out by local firm Maguire & Edwards who also furnished ‘the Lord Mayor’s suite of rooms in the new City Hall’.
The first librarian, Mr John Nelson, was recruited in December 1905 on the basis of ‘previous experience in classification and cataloguing’ at a salary of ‘£80 per annum’. The decision was not universally welcomed and caused the resignation of a Library Committee member ‘in consequence of this appointment’. Mr Johnson himself later resigned and was replaced prior to the library’s opening by ‘Mr A.E. Atkinson, formerly of Banbridge’. A full-time caretaker was hired in March 1906 ‘at a wage of 22s 6d per week, with uniform’. Cryptic reports later informed the Library Committee that the caretaker had ‘now resumed his duties’ and ‘there would be no more trouble in that direction’. The caretaker’s undisclosed mischief appears to have continued and he was replaced in January 1907.
Carnegie Oldpark Library opened on 30th November 1906. The ceremony was due to be performed by the Lord Mayor Sir Daniel Dixon who was instead ‘detained in London by his parliamentary duties’. The task fell to Sir James Henderson, proprietor of the Belfast News-Letter, who opened the front door with a ceremonial silver key. Andrew Carnegie was invited to attend the opening ceremony. Carnegie’s private secretary informed Belfast Corporation that ‘a trip to across to Ireland involves so much, and Mr Carnegie does not think he could manage it’. An address was read on Carnegie’s behalf: ‘[the Carnegie Trust] were engaged in a missionary enterprise with their libraries, endeavouring to bring to those centres people who did not care to read books’.
The library was stocked with ‘4,000 volumes’ for public lending in North Belfast. A wide array of newspapers and monthly periodicals ‘to suit a variety of tastes’ were available for consultation in the magazine room. Librarians were instructed not to purchase ‘works which would have evil influences upon the morality of the readers’. The library was an immediate success and attracted ‘4,463 visitors’ during its first full month of operation.
Andrew Carnegie visited Belfast in September 1910 and was conferred with ‘Freedom of Belfast’ by the Lord Mayor ‘in recognition of his eminent service in the cause of education’. The Belfast News-Letter reported that it was Carnegie’s ‘first visit to the North of Ireland’ and, noting the friendly local hospitality, ‘while in Ulster he did not think he had left Scotland at all’. Carnegie visited Oldpark Library and gave a short address on the subject free libraries and public literacy. This was Carnegie’s last visit to Ireland before his death, aged 83, in 1919. The Carnegie Trust continues its philanthropic work to this day.
Public spending cuts and declining use forced the closure of Oldpark Library in 2010. All three Belfast Carnegie libraries are still standing – though only one, on the Falls Road, remains operational as a public library. Oldpark Library was subsequently purchased by Janice Beggs and Quintin Oliver on behalf of the Lower Oldpark Community Association. The Association hope to re-purpose the building for community events and social enterprise projects. Carnegie’s legacy of democratising education and learning opportunities – the principles on which the library was constructed in 1906 – will remained enshrined in Oldpark Library’s new lease of life.
 Brendan Grimes, ‘Carnegie Libraries in Ireland’ in History Ireland, vol 6, no. 4 (1998), p. 26.
 George S. Bobinski, ‘Carnegie Libraries: their history and impact on American public library development’ in ALA Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 11 (1968), p. 1361.
 Gordon Wheeler, ‘A history of Belfast Central Library’ in The Linen Hall Review, vol 5, no. 2 (1988), p. 6.
 Belfast News-Letter, 1 December 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 29 September 1905.
 Belfast News-Letter, 5 June 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 2 December 1905.
 Belfast News-Letter, 9 March 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 16 November 1911.
 Belfast News-Letter, 1 December 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 27 April 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 3 August 1907.
 Belfast News-Letter, 18 January 1907.
 Belfast News-Letter, 28 September 1910.