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The Perry Carnegie Library Museum: A Legacy of Learning
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The Perry Carnegie Library Museum: A Legacy of Learning

On that almost fall day, with the temperature about 73 degrees, they were finally ready to open its doors.  Reaching this moment, however, was not without a common construction controversy: access to parking.  In this case, it was concern about the loss of wagon and buggy space in the city center. 

Fortunately, anticipation about what was inside eventually outweighed this worry.  On September 19, 1904, the new Perry Carnegie Public Library opened.  The 612 tax-paying residents who received library cards began the city’s legacy of learning. 

The Perry Carnegie Library Museum is a testament to the commitment of those who restored and maintain this literary gem.  It is the only former Carnegie Public Library in Iowa that is a library-museum.  Staffed completely by volunteer support, its designation on the National Register of Historic Places has secured Perry’s place in Iowa’s history.

Andrew Carnegie supports Perry, but on his terms

Perry’s library became one of the 101 Iowa public libraries built with the financial support of this U.S. steel industry leader.  Yet, Carnegie didn’t simply put a check in the mail.  His approval of a community’s grant application matched his vision for public libraries: “I chose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves,” said Carnegie. Thus, he required grant recipients to demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site and financial commitment, and offer free service to all.

Perry passed his test and built a tribute to learning.  Architectural details adorn the structure: pillars, archways, pediments, and detailed cornices.  The beauty of the building beckoned residents to journey through unexplored pages.

Beautifully restored – a time capsule

A card catalog, unknown to today’s generation of bibliophiles, still resides in the museum with its original wooden drawers.  It was the library’s sole source of research guidance.  In 1994, the city opened a new, fully automated public library.  Perry Public Library patrons may still borrow from the museum’s shelves.

In addition to the card catalog, the museum, which opened in 2004 after being restored to its 1910 interior, is rich in period details.  Early photographs of the library guided the selection of furnishings in the museum.  Portions of the 1,000 original books are on the bookshelves, some of which are also original. The depth of restoration included wall samples taken to determine the original paint colors and recreation of unstained maple hardwood floors. According to Laura Stebbins, a museum volunteer for three years, visitors are in awe. 

“I think a lot of people are just wowed by the restoration,” said Stebbins.  “A lot of the chairs are not original to 1904, but they are original to what was in there when it closed (in 1994), the card catalog, it brings back memories, a sort of time capsule that they remember from when they used to go to it years ago.”   

More than a library

What makes the museum unique is that it is more than a tribute to knowledge.  Also preserved in the building are two other early uses for the structure: the Women’s Room, which was restored to its look in the 1930’s, and the Superior Court of Perry. 

Unlike today’s online “chat rooms,” which are devoid of a personal connection, the Women’s Room offered a place for women to gather and talk.  Also, it was the one place in the city that had a public restroom and heat.  The city employed women to maintain this area to ensure no one smoked or loitered in the bathrooms.

Maintaining order was also the goal of the Superior Court, which was in the basement of the library until 1917.  The hearty wood benches and seats still on view make it easy to imagine the litigious discussions held here. 

Still rooted in the community

The museum embodies Carnegie’s belief that public libraries only “help those who help themselves.”  In an effort to maintain it as a must-visit destination, its volunteers have received loans of period items through a partnership with the Forest Park Museum in Perry.

“They (Forest Park Museum) will give us items from their collection, like the typewriters, they are old and people love them,” said Stebbins.   “We try to have an exhibit every quarter and try to have an event that will go with that exhibit.”  

One person who did her part to make every day eventful at the library was Flora Bailey.  She was its first librarian, a position she held for 41 years.  During her last years of service, the front steps became too challenging for her to maneuver so she was carried up and down them each day. 

What greater commentary about a community can there be than the way it treated this first keeper of books, manager of words?

Perry Carnegie Library Museum hours:  Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. / Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Location: 1123 Willis Avenue, Perry

Telephone: 515-465-2481

Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

Find the Perry Carnegie Library Museum and hundreds of other state historic and cultural sites on the Iowa Culture app!  Image source: City of Perry

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