With the recent publication of three studies on early-twentieth century Carnegie public library design, Professor Emeritus Alistair Black has completed his work for Cardiff University's Shelf-Life project. Directed by Professor Oriel Prizeman at the University's Welsh School of Architecture and funded by the United Kingdom's Arts and Humanities Research Council, Shelf-Life asks if the procurement of over 2,600 public library buildings across Britain and America a century ago, through the philanthropy of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, could benefit from “systematic thinking regarding their revitalization” in light of today’s climate change and need for sustainability and recycling in construction.
According to Black, the project's focus on the present was sharpened by historical studies of a selection of library buildings in Illinois. Case studies were conducted of Carnegie libraries in Evanston (IFLA Journal, 11 March 2021), Danville (Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, 5/1, 2021), and Paxton, Decatur, and Park Ridge (Library & Information History, 36/2, 2020).
"Perhaps compounded by Carnegie's reputation as an aggressive employer, the view that the original designs of Carnegie libraries were in many respects flawed and wasteful is fairly common," said Black. "However, such negative, retrospective perceptions should not be allowed to hide the many positive aspects of the designs, such as the inclusion of open shelves, community rooms and children's departments. Through detailed historical research that revisits and rereads original plans and schemes, it is possible to restore the reputation of early-twentieth century Carnegie library buildings, thereby encouraging efforts today and in the future to retain, remodel, and refurbish them as either libraries or other cultural arenas."
Black is the author of A New History of the English Public Library (1996), The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000 (2000), and Libraries of Light: British Public Library Design in the Long 1960s (2017) and co-author of several other books. He earned his master's degree in social and economic history from the University of London and his doctorate from London Metropolitan University.