“The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” This famous statement comes from Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist and steel baron who amassed a huge fortune and then spent the latter part of his life giving the majority of it away. Perhaps the best known of his philanthropies is Carnegie Hall, Manhattan’s famous concert venue which Carnegie paid to have built. Others include the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Mellon University and numerous museums. The most important of his projects, at least to those of us who love libraries, would be the Carnegie libraries. The image at right shows the Old Carnegie Library in Moultrie, GA. Built in 1906, it is no longer in use as a library but is on the National Register of Historic Places. 1690 of these libraries were built in the United States alone and many more in other parts of the world. A huge proponent of self-improvement, Carnegie didn’t provide endowments for these libraries. Rather, he insisted that any community interested in building a library aided by Carnegie funds be willing to abide by certain requirements:
- demonstrate the need for a public library;
- provide the building site;
- annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and,
- provide free service to all.
This last point created its contradictions. In the strictly segregated American South, for example, Carnegie funded separate libraries for African Americans in many communities. In any case, Carnegie rarely denied a request and many of these buildings, beautifully designed and executed, often became known as the most distinguished structures in their communities (check out some images here). The unique design of these buildings also featured an element brand new to libraries—self service stacks which encouraged patrons to browse and discover books, either on their on or with the guidance of library staff. Prior to this, patrons asked librarians to retrieve specific items from closed stacks.
Andrew Carnegie was a proponent of political egalitarianism and professed his support for labor unions. At the same time, he held his own workers to long hours at low pay and his reputation would be forever tarred by his actions during the Homestead Steel Strike. In spite of these contradictions, I believe that Carnegie has to be recognized as a major figure in shaping the mission of the modern public library. NPR recently ran a very interesting piece on Carnegie’s legacy that is well worth checking out. It includes a very lively comments section as well. If you’d like to learn more about Andrew Carnegie’s life, DCPL carries (among other resources) two well-regarded biographies Carnegie by Peter Krass and Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw.
Did you use your hometown’s library (or libraries) when you were growing up? Did your town ever have a Carnegie library? Speaking of hometown libraries don’t miss Joseph’s fun post from earlier this week!