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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Andrew Carnegie and his libraries

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, May 06, 2007

 

Andrew Carnegie continues to be a person of interest some 90 years after his death.

 

He is a curiosity, someone who still fascinates the public.

 

Born in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland to William and Margaret Carnegie, the Carnegie family immigrated to the United States as his father became unemployed by the industrial revolution in Great Britain.

 

Andrew Carnegie's formal education ended at age 12 when he became a bobbin boy in a textile mill in Pittsburgh.

 

In 1849, he left the mill to learn Morse code, and become a telegraph operator on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

 

An experience in his early life led Carnegie to become the largest single philanthropist in American history later in life.

 

Unable to return to school, he met Colonel James Anderson, who opened his personal library every Saturday to any young worker wishing to read a book.

 

Business success followed, and in 1889 Carnegie wrote an essay entitled, "Wealth," which stated that a rich man has a responsibility to use his wealth to benefit society.

 

In 1881, Carnegie had already funded the construction of a new library in his hometown in Scotland.

 

The 1890s brought Carnegie Libraries to the Pennsylvania cities of Allegheny, Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Braddock, and Homestead.

 

Fairfield, Iowa broke the mold of funding in 1893, being the first library outside of his steel towns to obtain a grant.

 

On June 30, 1899, both the East Liverpool and Steubenville Carnegie Grants were made; and with Sandusky, made the first three Ohio grants.

 

Carnegie rarely visited the 2,509 libraries he funded.  We have no record that he ever saw or commented about the Steubenville building.

 

After 1904, his secretary James Bertram handled all the requests for libraries in his gruff tone.

 

Cleveland was told to ask native John D. Rockefeller for money first, before Carnegie would fund their libraries.

 

Building plans were returned for changes, and requests were denied for a variety of reasons.

 

Some 225 communities said "no" to Carnegie's offer of a library building, either because local authorities refused the money of a "robber baron," or they were unable to meet the demands of support and a site.

 

Funding of libraries ended in 1917 due to demands for steel by World War I, with Carnegie dying in 1919.

 

The last library to be completed was the Wyoming Branch of the Philadelphia system, in the 1920s.

 

The largest numbers of Carnegie libraries were constructed in the Midwest with Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Nebraska leading the list.

 

Of Ohio's 111 Carnegie Libraries, 10 have disappeared due to demolition and many more are now serving other purposes.

 

The misconception that Carnegie still funds libraries continues to this day, since the Carnegie Corporation still exists.

 

While the Carnegie Corporation does fund a variety of efforts, none involve the construction of library buildings.

 

The name of Andrew Carnegie is permanently etched in American history due to his philanthropic efforts.