Engaged Scholarship and Historic Preservation of Interiors: Sustaining Identity and Facilitating Integrity in Iowa’s Carnegie Libraries

Presented by: Diane Al Shihabi

Historic preservation of interiors is a rapidly emerging specialization for interior design practitioners, facilitated globally by UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites program and in America by the USGBC’s decision to prioritize the greening of existing buildings. While formerly associated with the development of historic house museums and under the purview of architectural historians, contemporary historic interior restoration and rehabilitation projects require practitioners who not only understand design historical aesthetics, but who also have the ability to address code, functional, and environmental requirements. The evolving specialization further requires the development of research models that can identify historic interior design systems and assess their meanings, and that can contribute to the comprehensive determination of a building’s significance and a project’s preservation plan. Through Carnegie libraries, this study examines how interdisciplinary methodologies, combined with processes that juxtapose academia with communities, can engender mutually beneficial collaborations and facilitate civic responsibility. The resultant knowledge yields a type of engaged scholarship (Furco 2005, 10) that serves both the academe and society. 

Between 1886 and 1919, Andrew Carnegie awarded grants to 1,412 American communities to construct 1,679 public libraries (Mausolf 2007), of which 105 were in Iowa. Many of these buildings have outgrown their functional use and are undergoing different means of preservation. This study analyzes historic preservation research processes and treatment approaches of Carnegie Libraries in four Iowan communities: Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Perry, and Sigourney.  It asks how historic integrity and authenticity of interiors could be enhanced through interdisciplinary and collaborative research models that engage historic interiors specialists and community stakeholders from the onset, and how cultural identity can be sustained on local, national, and international levels through restored historic interiors.

Research methodology integrates content analysis (Mostyn 1985) of archival documents, photographic analysis of period imagery, material culture analysis (Prown 1980) of extant interiors, and community stakeholder input of preservation processes. The study identifies formal interior design systems and other character-defining elements of interiors, and weighs importance of these features in terms of early twentieth century social and cultural concerns, including taste and identity. It then examines extant forms and finishes in restored and rehabilitated interiors and considers dominant influences and values driving contemporary preservation decisions. Lastly, it assesses how outcomes could be improved through interdisciplinary and collaborative processes.

The study finds that integrity and authenticity could be increased if interiors’ specialists are introduced in the master-planning phase and jointly contribute to the development of the historic structure’s report. Integrating a historic interiors’ perspective with those of specialists from other disciplines, and with community stakeholders from the project’s inception could also prevent loss of historic fabric and enhance the sustainability of cultural identity at all levels. 

The study contributes to a growing interiors’ perspective in historic preservation, and accentuates the importance of interdisciplinary and collaborative research methodologies in the treatment of historic interiors and in its scholarship. It signals the importance of qualified historic preservation of interiors’ practitioners and the need for specialized design historical training beyond core history courses.


  • Furco, A. 2005.  “A Comparison of Traditional Scholarship and the Scholarship of Engagement.” In Anderson J. Douglass, J. et al, Promoting Civic Engagement at the University of California: Recommendations From the Strategy Group on Civic and Academic Engagement. Berkeley: Education Center.
  • Mausolf, Lisa B; Durfee Hengen, Elizabeth. 2007. Edward Lippincott Tilton: A Monograph on His Architectural Practice. https://www.nh.gov/nhdhr/publications/documents/etilton_monograph.pdf.  Accessed October 3.
  • Mostyn, Barbara. 1985. “The Content Analysis of Qualitative Research Data: A Dynamic Approach.” In The Research Interview: Uses and Approaches, edited by F. Brenner M. Brown and Cantor D. London: Academic Press.
  • Prown, Jules David. 1982. "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1, Spring: 1-19.
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