The public library movement was late in coming to Texas. Before the building program financed by Andrew Carnegie began, the state had only a handful of public libraries; some of the larger were the Galveston Public Library, the Houston Lyceum Library, the El Paso Public Library, and St. Mary's Church Library in San Antonio. Andrew Carnegie believed in giving to those who were willing to help themselves. He defined the public library as one that not only served the public but was supported by public funds. The cities that received his gifts were told they must make themselves responsible for the maintenance of the gifts. He asked that they pledge an amount equal to 10 percent of the grant, to be made available annually for the library, and that the city also provide a suitable site for the building.
Between 1898 and 1917 Carnegie gave thirty-four gifts totaling $645,000 to various Texas communities. These donations were responsible for the construction of thirty-two public library buildings. Pittsburg, a mining town of fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, was the first Texas community to receive a Carnegie building grant. The gift of $5,000 in 1898 helped to finance a building that contained a small library and reading room for the use of local mine workers during their leisure time. In 1899 and 1900 gifts were awarded to the Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio public library associations and the Houston Women's Club. The El Paso Public Library Association received a grant of $37,500 in 1904. Grants to such smaller communities as Clarksville, Waco, Belton, Tyler, Gainesville, and Sherman often resulted from applications from women's clubs, many of which had already started their own subscription libraries.
Typically, the buildings were constructed with two stories and a basement. Club rooms and auditoriums were included in the early buildings to provide rental fees to help defray operating costs. Later the Carnegie Corporation refused to approve plans that included rooms for nonlibrary use. The libraries in smaller communities were located wherever land was made available to them. Usually this property was adjacent to the business section of town, and frequently the development of a park around the library was planned, if one did not already exist.
Construction on the last Texas library built by Carnegie funds began in May 1915 in Vernon. On its completion, the Vernon Library Committee found that it had no money with which to buy books, a problem frequently encountered in small communities. However, two years later the library was able to open with 4,000 volumes provided through the efforts of the city commission and the women's library club.
In many small communities the libraries functioned as the educational institutions they were intended to be. For example, Gainesville expanded service to the entire county, the second Texas library to do so. Sulphur Springs, Tyler, Sherman, and Waco enhanced support of their successful libraries with increases in funding and use. But in some of the smaller communities, interest declined due to the lack of good books and professional guidance. By 1914 fourteen communities were defaulting on the agreements made with the Carnegie Corporation, despite efforts by the Texas State Library and the Texas Historical Commission to remedy the situation.
In 1916 Alvin S. Johnson of Columbia University reported to the Carnegie Corporation that Texas libraries were poorly stocked and badly run and suggested that funds might better have been used for both books and buildings, with a provision for competent librarians for the initial period. He recommended that the corporation's attention be directed to education for librarianship. Shortly thereafter, the building grants were discontinued.
Although the libraries were not successful in some small communities because of the lack of financial support, the building program was a worthy experiment. It stimulated interest in the public library movement and supplied the only means by which many library buildings could have been built. The buildings themselves were quite up-to-date. That in Gainesville, for instance, was made of cream-colored brick and steel; wood was used only for doors and windows. In Texas the program resulted in the construction of libraries in five of the largest cities, thus permitting local resources to be spent entirely for staff and book collections. The resulting institutions are among the largest libraries in Texas.