Attempts to establish public libraries in Reno began in the 1880s, but funding them proved to be problematic. In 1901, after numerous attempts to secure taxes for libraries, State Assemblyman Frank Norcross of Reno wrote to the millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, requesting that Carnegie’s library foundation fund a library for Reno.
Carnegie, who came to America as an uneducated Scottish immigrant, credited a library for setting him on the right path, and he wanted to provide such opportunities to others. He began donating libraries to communities across the country in 1886.
The basic requirement for securing a Carnegie library was a population of more than 1,000, with the amount of the gift set at $2 per capita. Recipient towns were required to provide a site for the library and to tax themselves at a rate of 10 percent of the total gift. The funds were to be used to maintain the building, buy books, and pay the salaries of the library staff. Frank Norcross’s November 14, 1901 letter to Carnegie requesting a library for Reno closed with, “I assure you that no other place would appreciate your generosity more than Reno, Nevada.”
After some discussions over the actual size of Reno’s population, Carnegie awarded the town $15,000 for the erection of a “Free Public Library Building” in 1902. The county commissioners and the newly constituted Board of Library Trustees selected a site at Virginia and Mill streets and advertised for an architect. Six architects were considered, but the commission was awarded to William H. Wilcox of San Francisco, who had just completed a Classical Revival-style Carnegie Library in Alameda, California. For Reno’s smaller building, Wilcox chose the Second Renaissance Revival style. To Carnegie, style was secondary to convenience; however, Wilcox was able to accomplish both architectural distinction and library functionality.
Immediately after its opening in 1904, the Carnegie Library became Reno’s most important cultural institution, but by the late 1920s, the library collection had outgrown the building. To relieve the overcrowding, the collection was moved in 1930 into the Nevada State Building, which had been built across Mill Street for the 1927 Transcontinental Highway Exposition.
A proposal to move the now-vacant Carnegie building to Sparks to serve as a branch library was deemed impracticable, and the building was demolished in 1931. A new U.S. Post Office building opened on the site in 1934.