Cowgirl Carnegies

By Andrea Graham, AHW Secretary 

May 2, 2018

In researching the history of Wyoming’s Carnegie libraries for the Alliance for Historic Wyoming’s Cowboy Carnegies exhibit, we learned that women’s clubs were vital to the establishment of local literary and educational initiatives across the state, and across the country. After the Civil War, there was a surge in the formation of women’s clubs, starting in the eastern US and gradually spreading west. These organizations became so numerous and active that the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was formed in 1890 to organize them on a national scale. Many of the clubs were primarily reading and study groups and began collecting books as a natural outgrowth of this interest. Encouraging literacy and making books publicly available soon led to the establishment of libraries by these clubs.

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In Wyoming, clubs included the Cheyenne Women’s Club, the Book Lover’s Club in Basin, the Twentieth Century Club of Newcastle, the Cody Women’s Club, the Wheatland Library Association, the Lusk Reading Club, and the Women of the West Club in Thermopolis. All of these organizations were central to the establishment of early libraries, which were often housed in county courthouses, city halls, banks, schools, and commercial buildings. The Carnegie library building program, which ran from 1898 to 1919, provided funds to construct purpose-built libraries in towns large and small, and women’s clubs leapt at the chance to have a dedicated library space.

Despite the long-standing work by women’s groups in organizing and funding fledgling book collections and lending libraries, when it came to requesting funding from the Carnegie library program, correspondence had to come from a local government entity, usually a county or town. This meant that some of the work had to be turned over to the men in power, but women remained a crucial part of the enterprise of building libraries, raising money for books and furnishings (which were not covered by the Carnegie funds), and promoting libraries as cultural centers in their towns.

According to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the American Library Association, between 75 and 80 percent of public libraries in the US were founded by women’s organizations. Perhaps the Alliance’s historic library initiative should be called “Cowgirl Carnegies”.

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A good resource on the history of the Carnegie library program is Abigail Van Slyck’s Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920. For more information on Wyoming’s 16 Carnegies libraries, see www.historicwyoming.org/carnegielibraries

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