Carnegie Library of Davidson College

Image of the Davidson College Carnegie Library, now used as the College Guesthouse, from 1976 Davidsonian Article.

Carnegie Library of Davidson College

Founded in 1910, the Davidson College Carnegie Library was named for the U.S. philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who made a substantial donation towards the building. This building served as the library from 1910 to 1941. During this time, Davidson hired its first full-time librarian, Ms. Cornelia Shaw.

Andrew Carnegie, American businessman and philanthropist.

Andrew Carnegie


The Davidson Carnegie Library was one of 2,509 libraries sponsored in the English-speaking world by Carnegie before his death in 1919 (Our Founder 2009).

Born in 1835 in Scotland, Carnegie’s childhood was poor. As a young teenager, Carnegie’s family moved to the United States to escape famine, where Carnegie worked for the railroad companies. His evenings were available, and as Alberto Manguel explains in The Library at Night, he found “the intellectual wealth of the world” in a free public library in downtown Pittsburgh (Manguel 99). Later in life, when Carnegie became a successful steel magnate, he remained convinced that the best gift one could give to a community was a free library.

However, his relationship with wealth and books was complex and contradictory. A famous philanthropist, he was also accused of seeking only personal privilege and gain in his business dealings. Regardless of Carnegie’s complicated character, his libraries did indeed serve a greater purpose (Manguel 102). This applies directly to the Carnegie Library of Davidson College, where his gift assisted in a larger vision of accessibility to resources.

Cornelia Shaw, the college librarian (1907-1936), offers details on the funding and priorities of the Carnegie library in her talk.

1910 Talk by Cornelia Shaw


Donation and Construction

In 1906, Carnegie offered a donation of $20,000 to build and furnish a library for Davidson College, if the school could match the amount as a library endowment (Beaty 213). After some delay and an increase in student population, the school decided to spend the $20,000 on the library building itself, making it a centerpiece for the campus, instead of subdividing the funds between the building, furniture, and literature. Construction on the Carnegie Library began in 1909, and the building was dedicated on September 12, 1910 (Blodgett 1). In her talk on the progress of the library, Cornelia Shaw, the college librarian (1907-1936), offers details on the funding and priorities of the library. The main focuses of the project were more room and convenience, with its location being central to all dormitories (Shaw Talk on Carnegie). Clearly, student convenience mattered to the administration and librarian.


In 1910, Davidson College hired a professional book cataloguer from State Normal College in New York to catalogue all 16,000 books, using a modified version of the Dewey decimal system (“Letter to Professor E. J. Erwin” 1).  The results showed that the library featured books of numerous subjects, such as literature, public speaking, economics, law and government, science, and art (Tentative Report on Library 1929).  While the holdings were wide ranging, they did not necessarily keep pace with scholarly publication.

Rules and Regulations

The regulations in the library were mostly about overdue and lost books, instructions on checking out books, and regulations on appearance and manners of users, for example, in Cornelia Shaw’s letter to Miss Heims she writes: “each man coming in is supposed to have on his coat, just as he does in the class-rooms or his Mother’s parlor.” As in most other libraries, “silence [was] insisted upon as far as possible” in the Carnegie Library (Shaw to Heims 1914). In fact, there were signs throughout the building reading “Silence Please.” Although “a fine of 5 cents a day [was] charged on books kept over-time” according to the Davidson College Library Rules, the correspondence between the librarian and the departments of Davidson College indicates that overdue books were still prevalent, which was probably because the library had “few regulations about books kept over-time and lost” (Letter to Miss Heims Oct. 1914).

Davidson College library rules and regulations adopted by the library committee

Library Rules (1911)

Similar to the current Davidson College Library, faculty had the privilege of extended book borrowing in the library. The “Davidson College Library Rules” (adopted in 1911) state that the officers of the college had a higher priority in using the books than the students. The students could check out a book for two weeks and “renew a book for a second period of one week,” whereas the professors were able to retain the books for up to four months, with no limit on renewals (Library Rules 1911).

Carnegie Library Interior

Carnegie Library Interior


During the 1920s and 1930s, the Carnegie Library experienced some growing pains.  In 1929, the faculty wrote numerous letters to President Martin (1912-1929) concerning the library’s collection.  Along with recommending which books to dispose of, each department asked that money be appropriated for the purchase of books to enhance the college’s collection (“Letter to President Martin” 1). An extensive survey of the Carnegie Library was taken, reporting on such features as the collection, size of the reading room, and office space.  This survey proposed a new open reading room on the first floor to “emphasize the fact that the college is genuinely interested in the cultivation of more effective reading habits on the part of the student body,” and also boasted of its ability to seat nearly twenty percent of the student body (Wilson 5-6). This reading room was a priority for the college library, because the building was not just intended as a storehouse, but as an extension of the student body for reading and learning.

Students lined up “single file, three feet apart by classes” and created a line that stretched moving the library books from the Carnegie Library to the Grey Library in 1941.

Book Brigade

Book Brigade Instructions


Move Into Grey Library Building

Due to a growing collection and lack of space in the Carnegie Library, the college decided to move the library to the Grey Building. In October 1941, the Grey Library Building was finished and ready for the books to be transferred from the Carnegie Library.  Instead of simply carting the books over to the new building, however, the college decided to have a book brigade.  Students were asked to line up “single file, three feet apart by classes” and create a line that stretched from the Carnegie Library to the Grey Library (“Instructions” 1).  The books were then passed from person to person; this went on until all 39,000 books made it safely into the new library. 

Six photos from the book brigade

Additional images from the book brigade and passing.

Guest House and Beyond

After the Carnegie Library was vacated, it was renovated into a guesthouse and home to the campus YMCA headquarters.  In 1972, the building became the temporary college union until a new one was constructed.  Finally, in 1976, the Carnegie Library building was permanently remodeled as a guesthouse, containing seven bedrooms and three bathrooms to accommodate guests to the college (Blodgett 1-2). For more information, see the 1976 Davidsonian article, or the Davidson Encyclopedia Carnegie Guesthouse page.

Works Cited

Beaty, Mary D. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, NC. Briarpatch Press 1988.

Blodgett, Jan. “Chronology of Carnegie Library.” Typescript. Buildings- Carnegie. Davidsonian File. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Charlotte Observer.  Davidson’s “Book Brigade”.  1 October 1941.  RG 3/4.1b. Library-Shaw.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Hickert, Pat.  “Carnegie Evolves into Guest House.” 29 October 1976.  Buildings- Davidson College -Carnegie Guest House.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Instructions Read to the Student Body.  1 October 1941.  RG 3/4.1b.  Library-Shaw. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Library Committee.  Davidson College Rules and Information.  May 1911.  RG 3/4.1b. Library-Shaw.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Lingle, Thos. W.  Letter to President Martin.  24 January 1928.  RG 2/1.11.  President Martin, Library Records 1927-1928.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Manguel, Alberto.  The Library at Night.  Canada: Alfred A. Knopf.  Canada, 2006.
“Our Founder.” Carnegie Corporation of New York. N.p., 2009. Web. 6 Oct. 2011. <>.

Photograph of Andrew Carnegie. “Andrew Carnegie: A Tribute”. 1996. Web. 4 Oct 2011. <>.
Photograph of Carnegie Library Interior.  Cornelia Shaw Scrapbook.  Image 14a. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of Carnegie Library Reading Room.  Cornelia Shaw Scrapbook.  Image 14b.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of Carnegie Library Reading Room.  Cornelia Shaw Scrapbook.  Image 14c.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photographs of 1941 Book Brigade.  Cornelia Shaw Scrapbook.  RG 3/4.1b.  Library- Shaw.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Shaw, Cornelia.  Letter to Miss Heims.  23 October 1914.  RG 3/4.1b.  Library-Shaw, Cornelia, Correspondence 1909-1916. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

—.  Letter to Professor E. J. Erwin.  6 November 1914.  RG 3/4.1b.  Library-Shaw, Cornelia, Correspondence 1909-1916.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

—.  Talk on Carnegie Library of Davidson College.  7 December 1910. RG 3/4.1b.  Library-Shaw.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Wilson, Louis R.  Tentative Report on the Davidson College Library.  1929. RG 2/1.12.  President Lingle, Library Reports, 1930-1936.  Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Authors: Carpenter, Blair and Haley  DeLuca, Chandler Gray, Dawei Gu
Date: October 2011
Cite as: Carpenter, Blair and Haley  DeLuca, Chandler Gray, Dawei Gu “Carnegie Library of Davidson College” Davidson Encyclopedia, October 2011.

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