October 18, 2017

Carnegie, Libraries

On this day in 1901, Andrew Carnegie offered New York City $5.2 million for the construction of 65 branch libraries. Of the 56.5 million given by Carnegie for over 2500 libraries in a dozen countries, this was his largest single grant, part of a wider attempt to live up to his famous dictum: "The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced." Though some of Carnegie's contemporaries were more interested in attacking the "Gospel of Wealth" whereby "Saint Andrew" amassed his money than in praising him for giving it away, not many librarians could have been among them.

Carnegie's enthusiasm for libraries was partly theoretical, the faith of a Scottish immigrant that the New World was best approached through the Old: "Show me the man who speaks English, reads Shakespeare and Bobby Burns, and I'll show you a man who has absorbed the American principles." A more engaging explanation of why building libraries became such a special focus of Carnegie's philanthropy comes from his biography. When twelve-year-old Carnegie emigrated to Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) he began work as a bobbin boy at a cotton factory. By age fourteen he had moved on to become a messenger at the telegraph office. In his spare hours he liked to read, both for pleasure and with an eye to improvement. There was no public library, the only books available being a private collection of about 400 volumes which a local man, Col. James Anderson, opened up every Saturday as a "Mechanics' and Apprentices' Library." When Carnegie discovered that being a messenger boy rather than a boy with a trade meant he could not borrow these books, he wrote a complaint letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, signing it "a Working Boy." The following week, Anderson published his rebuttal in the Dispatch, reiterating his rules. The next week Carnegie published another letter, reiterating his argument that he and his workmates deserved consideration, this one signed "a Working Boy, though without a trade." The following week Anderson published this notice in the newspaper: "Will 'a Working Boy without a trade' please call at my office."

In his autobiography seventy years later, Carnegie explains that "in this way the windows were opened in the walls of my dungeon through which the light of knowledge streamed in." Outside the library Carnegie built in Allegheny is a monument to Anderson, and on the entrance arch to most libraries he built is the inscription, "Free to All" -- and "if one boy in each library district, by having access to one of these libraries, is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson's four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain." Carnegie's autobiography also pays tribute to his parents' role in all this. His long hours as a messenger boy meant that much of his reading had to be done on Sunday, a thing possible only because his parents progressively defied an era "when it was scarcely permissible, at least among the Scotch, to take a walk for pleasure or read any but religious books on the Sabbath."

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