Wealth, philanthropy and libraries

Black Watch Library, Ticonderoga, NY. Image by Mwanner, Wikipedia

Black Watch Library, Ticonderoga, NY. Image by Mwanner, Creative Commons

On a recent visit to my local library, in small-town North Gower, I noticed a missive on Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Libraries.

Conversing with the staff, I learned October is Canadian Library Month. (Read collected stories on how libraries enrich lives here.) The info on Carnegie Libraries was a supplement to the larger event.

Regrettably, I stumbled on that celebration near its end. But there’s still time to take in a big book sale at the Cornwall Library this weekend. And libraries are here for us every month of the year.

The U.S. marks National Library Week in April. But both countries were blessed with libraries funded through the philanthropic vision of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Indeed, one of my former library haunts was the main branch of the Hawaii Public Library system, another Carnegie Library. (A bust of Carnegie there is sometimes adorned with flower lei.)

The so-called robber barons of the gilded age are often held up as unhealthy examples of wealth run amok. (Bringing to mind the phrase: everything old is new again!) But – just as Bill and Melinda Gates have chosen to put significant wealth into social service – industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided one legacy of his vast wealth would be free public libraries, open to all classes and races. NPR’s Susan Stamberg had this take on Carnegie’s complex role in US history.

Andrew Carnegie, 1913.

Andrew Carnegie, 1913. Library of Congress image.

Carnegie was born poor in Scotland before climbing to the top as a king of rail and steel in the U.S.

After becoming one the wealthiest men of his time, by the end of Carnegie’s career his main goal was to give it away. Carnegie famoulsly said “The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced”. As detailed in material compiled by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburg, Carnegie wrote:

“Man does not live by bread alone.” I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.

And why fund libraries? Again, Carnegie waxes eloquently:

“I chose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves.”

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

Brockville Public Library

Brockville Public Library, part of that city’s architectural heritage.

Carnegie’s well-directed wealth funded 111 libraries in Ontario alone and 14 others across Canada. According to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, his philanthropy funded 2,509 libraries through out the English-speaking wold, including 1,679 in the U.S. Carnegie didn’t always pay the full tab, he didn’t believe in fostering dependence. But his grants were often crucial for individual communities to raise any additional funds themselves.

According to Wikipedia, it’s been a legacy with longevity too (despite a slight numerical discrepancy in the total number of U.S. libraries in question.):

In 1992, The New York Times reported that, according to a survey conducted by Dr. George Bobinksi, dean of the School of Information and Library Studies at the State University at Buffalo, 1,554 of the 1,681 original buildings in the United States still existed, with 911 still used as libraries. Two-hundred seventy six were unchanged, 286 had been expanded, and 175 had been remodeled. Two-hundred forty three had been demolished while others had been converted to other uses.[19]

While hundreds of the library buildings have become museums, community centers, office buildings, residences, or are otherwise used, more than half of those in the United States still serve their communities as libraries over a century after their construction,[20] many in middle- to low-income neighborhoods. For example, Carnegie libraries still form the nucleus of the New York Public Librarysystem in New York City, with 31 of the original 39 buildings still in operation.

Turning to all of New York State, this Wikipedia list says 106 public and 3 academic libraries were funded through Carnegie’s efforts. Four public libraries and one academic are listed for Vermont. Is there one near you? (Hint: try Theresa and Ticonderoga, for starters.)

Think what you will about vast wealth and how it is acquired. By many accounts, Carnegie was also a ruthless capitalist. But his vision for redirecting riches toward the service of humanity remains a remarkable, lasting legacy. Thank-you, sir.

Long may we take advantage of that awesome opportunity, free and open to all. 

Main branch of the Hawaii State Library, another Carnegie legacy. (built: 1911–1913; Architect Henry D. Whitfield) Image: Wikipedia

Main branch of the Hawaii State Library, another Carnegie legacy. (built: 1911–1913; Architect Henry D. Whitfield) Source: Wikipedia

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3 Comments on “Wealth, philanthropy and libraries”

  1. Judith says:

    And in the North Country, we benefit from the generosity of A Barton Hepburn who funded libraries in many small towns. Quite a gift!

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I second your thanks to Carnegie and all the wealthy to do more with their wealth than just buy things.
    We need to look at our schools in the same way Carnegie viewed libraries.
    Now that we are in the digital age, we need to view access to the Internet as vital as access to libraries and schools.

  3. Hank says:

    The spectacular new central public library in Halifax, Nova Scotia has just been completed and will open any day now. It is the first new central library built in a major Canadian city in over 30 years. It is an all-glass design intended to portray books stacked upon each other. You can read about it (and see photos) here….


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