The Legacy of Carnegie Libraries
Walk into just about any public library in America and you can find the names of local citizens who contributed to the library. Yet one name appears more than all others. It is not the name of a local citizen at all, but of a small, bearded, nineteenth-century immigrant who became America’s iconic steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie.
Beginning in 1883 and continuing for some 40 years, Carnegie’s foundation helped to construct over 1,600 libraries in American cities and towns. In 1919, the year of his death, Carnegie’s money had built nearly half of the libraries then open in America. He built another 700 or so in other countries. His unprecedented donations earned him the sobriquet “Patron Saint of Libraries.”
Carnegie’s foundation required that local communities come up with the land, the books and the operating budgets, but they could build the libraries in whatever style the local community approved.
The offer was irresistible to most municipalities in a country still rushing to settle itself, and nary a town that applied for a library was turned away. They used Carnegie funds to build fine, lasting buildings that have sheltered generations. Most Carnegie libraries, old enough to celebrate their century marks, are still in use today.
Why Carnegie wrote the checks
Carnegie was the quintessential American success story. As a boy, working long hours at his job, he was overwhelmed by the generosity of a retired merchant named Colonel Anderson, who lent his personal collection of some 400 books on Saturday afternoons to local boys. This was how Carnegie educated himself.
It was from this life-altering experience that Carnegie would conclude decades later that there was no better use of his money than to build libraries so that others could benefit in similar fashion.
He began in his native Scotland, where he provided the funds for a new library in the town of Dunfermline. The opening of the beautiful stone library, on 25 August 1883, so pleased Carnegie that he set out to repeat the process—again and again, and with a passion.
The Scottish historian Gerry Blaikie explains something of Carnegie’s complex motivations. “Carnegie and his family were totally indifferent to organized religion so there was no religious purpose in his philanthropy. Much more likely was a political agenda to help the underprivileged gain access to knowledge, something which the ruling classes on both side of the Atlantic would not have fully approved of.”
Photos of the original interiors of the Dunfermline library from Blaikie’s website show some scenes still familiar to today’s library patrons—racks for periodicals, reading tables and children’s rooms. Other aspects seem curiously quaint—such as separate reading rooms for women.
“Whether or not Andrew Carnegie is remembered as a Gilded Age robber baron or the father of business philanthropy probably depends upon which side of the economic tracks you hail from,” observes Les Standiford, the author of Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick & The Bitter Partnership That Transformed America. “But such debate aside, it is undeniable that Carnegie is as responsible as any modern individual for the very concept of the free public library.
“While he imposed no stipulations as to size or style of architecture, the Carnegie Library was often the most imposing structure in a given community,” Les adds. One structure in particular stays in Les’s memory.
“I remember haunting the stacks of the Cambridge, Ohio, Carnegie Library as a youth—the grandeur of the building seemed a testament to the treasure trove of volumes that it housed. The thought of writing a book that would take a place on those shelves seemed as monumental an ambition as seizing the Grail itself.”
Carnegie spread most of his largess in his adopted America, but he funded libraries in all the English-speaking countries of his day, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Keystones and key ideas
It’s not only his buildings that endure into our present century. Carnegie’s idea of co-investment with local communities is also being carried on in a significant way around the world today by the Room to Read Foundation. In less than ten years, this foundation has helped build some 5,000 libraries in developing countries. (Room to Read is the subject of my next Golden Age post.)
It’s ironic that cacophonous steel mills produced so many quiet reading rooms. How many millions of readers and writers over the years have enlightened themselves in those quiet sanctuaries? How many even today tap quietly at computer keyboards inside those same spaces?
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