Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)

"The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise."
"The fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves."

--Andrew Carnegie


In these and many other statements, the Scottish immigrant and self-educated millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie acknowledged the importance of libraries in his own life. He often cited the benefit he received from a private library being made available once a week to the working boys of his community. Earlier, his father and uncle were among those who started a library for fellow linen weavers in their village of Dumfermline in Scotland.

While still a young man, but already financially successful, Carnegie began to formulate a personal philosophy to distribute "surplus wealth" during his lifetime. The rise of the great industrial fortunes following the Civil War resulted in several models. These included the library philanthropy of John Jacob Astor, John Lenox and Samuel Tilden in behalf of the New York City library system and especially Enoch Pratt's Baltimore library philanthropy.

In 1889 Carnegie published an article entitled "Wealth," republished in 1900 as the title chapter of The Gospel of Wealth and Other Essays, in which he formally and publicly set forth his philosophy of employing wealth in the goal of helping people who were willing to help themselves.

Meanwhile, in 1881 Carnegie had made his first library gift, to his native Dumfermline. Between 1886 and 1896, in what he later termed his "retail" period of library philanthropy, he endowed several libraries in Pennsylvania including towns where he had lived or established mills. These gifts were typical of paternalistic philanthropy: a home town or principal residence of the donor received a library, not requested but fully endowed, on a site selected by the donor and dedicated with elaborate ceremony honoring the donor.

Carnegie soon was receiving numerous requests as communities hoped that they too might obtain a permanent building for their libraries, initiating what he later called his "wholesale" period. After 1898, the Carnegie library philanthropy began to assume the pattern that characterized it for its duration. Libraries represented self education, so a library gift should represent self help. Carnegie would provide the building but the community must provide the land and tax support for the library.

As inquiries increased, Carnegie designated responsibility for the library program to fellow Scotsman James Bertram, whom he had hired in 1897 to be his personal secretary. Over the years Bertram increasingly formalized the process, effectively insulating Carnegie from almost all petitioners.

When in 1900 he sold his steel holdings to what would become U.S. Steel, Carnegie was free to pursue an array of interests. He became an active participant in the search for world peace and met with world leaders. In addition to funding library buildings and church organs, he advocated simplified spelling, which he and Bertram used in all of their correspondence. In 1911 Carnegie founded the Carnegie Corporation to handle his many philanthropies.

Carnegie, and his library program, had not been without detractors. Some believed that the public library movement was expanding too rapidly, propelled more by Carnegie's personal conviction than by public demand; others, including cities with strong labor movements, were critical of the source of Carnegie money. Some members of the emerging profession of librarianship believed it inevitable that small libraries would be inadequately staffed and lacking in literary and informational resources. These views appeared in articles and speeches, in satire and cartoons.

In 1916 the Corporation Board of Trustees conducted an independent study which noted the accomplishments of the program but advocated that in the future more money should be provided for library service and less for buildings. The war provided a convenient interruption in the granting of funds, and the program was not resumed after the war, but libraries previously approved received their grants and were completed.

Many of the other Carnegie programs continue today; some are still mentioned frequently on the daily news, among them the Carnegie Hero Award, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But although a relatively small part of the Carnegie philanthropies, free public libraries are probably still the best known.


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