Over the course of three decades, Andrew Carnegie helped introduce the American people to the notion of a public library. He built nearly 1,700 libraries across the country, most in small towns that may not have known they needed a library before Carnegie came calling. Between 1893 and 1919, the Golden Age of American libraries, he spent what amounts to $1.3 billion today building libraries in every state—even in Hawaii, before it was a state.
Now, Apple CEO Tim Cook wants to take one of them away. Last week, the tech firm revealed its plans to turn the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C., into an Apple store. Like many Carnegie libraries, it is a Beaux Arts gem of a building, set apart in its own small park square downtown. The campus alone gives it prominence and dignity. One of four libraries built in D.C. with a grant from Carnegie, the Mount Vernon Square library is the only one that goes unused today, despite its stature. Other Carnegie libraries elsewhere have closed since the 1920s. Most towns and cities have found ways to use them.