Does Geneva Library need to remain a library? Not likely

  • The Geneva Public Library was built in 1907 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

    The Geneva Public Library was built in 1907 with a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Daily Herald file photo, 2008

Posted10/5/2010 5:33 PM

The Geneva Public Library, like thousands of others, owes its existence to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

A $7,500 grant from one of his charitable foundations enabled Genevans slightly more than a century ago to resume and finish construction of the library at 127 James St.


But Carnegie was a shrewd giver -- he never gave money to operate libraries. He expected local governments to keep them running. To make sure they didn't abuse or waste his gift, covenants restricting the use of the buildings to libraries were placed on deeds.

That covenant has come to the forefront again in Geneva, as library officials plan to buy a new site and build a replacement library.

Can one sentence, written 103 years ago, thwart those plans?

Not likely, according to both library board President Esther Barclay and Jane Gorjevsky, curator of the Carnegie Collections at Columbia University Libraries in New York.

"There was never a requirement that the library remain in perpetuity," she said of the grants Carnegie made for 3,000-plus libraries. (Carnegie, primarily self-educated, was a voracious reader and a writer.)

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The legalese is on the warranty deed for the property, dated Feb. 7, 1907, in which the Geneva Hall Co. deeded the site over to the city of Geneva:

"To have and to hold the same in trust, however, to and for the use and benefit of a free public library to be maintained thereon and for no other use or benefit whatever, and to that end to permit the board of directors of the Free Public Library of the Township of Geneva, Ill., without expense to said City of Geneva, to take possession of said premises and complete the building thereon and occupy and enjoy the free use and benefits thereof, to continue in such use, benefit and occupation of the same at all times."

The library opened in 1908. It has been enlarged several times.

Gorjevsky said, however, that Carnegie never put perpetuity clauses on his gifts, because he realized the libraries would need flexibility to change buildings.

All he wanted at the time was to make sure the towns and groups asking for his help were really serious about having a library and prepared to pay to operate one. They had to fill out paperwork showing they had a property tax or demonstrate other means of revenue for buying books, hiring workers and maintaining the building, Gorjevsky said.

Barclay said at a September meeting that the board's attorney says the board can ask a judge to remove the restriction, or buy insurance that protects whoever the new owner of the library site would be. There has been talk that the city of Geneva might move City Hall into the library building, which is next door to City Hall. The board intends to buy a shuttered factory, house and office building near State and Seventh streets.


The issue of covenants is one Gorjevsky has gotten a lot lately, as Carnegie libraries celebrate centennials. And in the last 20 years, library boards have had to deal with adapting buildings to federal handicapped-accessibility requirements.

The libraries more than 2,000 in the United States were built between 1900 and 1917.

"He (Carnegie) was very particular back then," Gorjevsky said. "The question was not about forever."