Stop 8: Carnegie Library

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If you look straight up Madrona Street, you will see the site of the original Carnegie Library, which opened in 1911 and is now a private residence.

Carnegie library, c. 1940sIn 1962, this Library received a prestigious Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. At the time, a newspaper article titled “A Library Does a Lot with a Little” commented, “It’s a 40-step climb to the tight — but bright — little Mill Valley Public Library. “At least three-fourths of the people who come in lean breathlessly on the counter for support, then ask, when are you going to have a building on the level?”

The article went on to say that despite the climb, the bulging stacks and antiquated facilities, the library was known for doing a lot with a little. “The use of the Mill Valley Library compared with the size of the book collection indicates the determination of the staff and the library board to provide the best possible service though their resources are limited.”

In 2011, the Library celebrated its centennial. It was a transformative year. An After Hours series including performances and lectures was kicked off. Events like the Naked Truth and the Poetry World Series, were soon the talk of the town. The Library fully embraced its role as a location in which people came together to share experiences and make connections. Architect Don Emmons couldn’t have been more accurate, it seems, or more prescient in 1965 when he characterized the feeling of the new location as a vibrant gathering place.

That buzz of excitement, the pulse of a community, was something you could really feel at these and other events. In 2015, the Mill Valley Library was named one of the Best Small Libraries in America. The jury noted the Library’s robust and innovative programming as well as its close collaborations with its community. Without funding from both our Mill Valley Library Foundation and the Friends of the Library, this transformative year, while it still might have happened, would have been more subdued and anodyne, its programs and services less robust, its innovations fewer.

In 1918, the Library was ordered to close for a month due to the Spanish flu pandemic, and all fines were waived. A little over a 100 years later, our current Library was forced once again to close. Once again, fines were waived for a pandemic.

Women seated in front of Carnegie library, 1911The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the Library to transform itself yet again. The need to adapt – to think creatively about how to reach beyond the Library walls while our doors remained closed, to reach people in new ways, to respond to a new set of circumstances – that experience will inform our ability to thrive in a future whose features, whose pressures and delights, cannot be known to us now.

Much has changed since the Carnegie Library first opened a hundred and ten years ago. But whether located in that little building forty steps up Madrona, soon too cramped to keep pace with the community it served, or in one as beautiful and spacious and inspiring as our Throckmorton facility, or even in one — during these recent anxious months of pandemic — that has existed beyond its walls, beyond its physical space, our Library will continue to affirm its importance in the lives and minds of its public, and it will continue to flourish in ways no one could possibly have guessed in 1911.