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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 Public Libraries

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 21, 2005

Andrew Carnegie gave away a total of $ 56 million dollars to build 2,509 libraries worldwide between 1881 and 1919.Why would one individual contribute that sum of money for one type of institution? Looking at Carnegie's life in detail provides some clues to his philosophy.

After his family came to the United States from Scotland, Carnegie realized the importance of education.  He learned to be a telegraph operator, learning some of the trade right here in Steubenville around 1850. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for several years as an operator, and invested in the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company.

In 1875, he formed his own company to produce iron railroad bridges and rails for the American railroad industry. In five years, his wealth had grown to the point that he gave his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland its first library, starting the Carnegie Library program.

As a boy, Carnegie had used the private library of Colonel James Anderson.  One visit, and one book per week on Saturdays was the agreement with many of the boys working as telegraph operators in those early days.

In 1889, Carnegie wrote an article for "The North American Review" called "Wealth."  It offers his philosophy of how a responsible person of wealth should help his fellow man. He stated, "A man who dies rich, dies disgraced." Combine his experience with Col. Anderson with this philosophy, and it is clear why Carnegie funded the establishment of libraries.

The first Carnegie Library in the United States was the 1893 Fairfield, Iowa library. That was followed by many libraries in the Pittsburgh area, Carnegie's home. Ohio's first Carnegie Libraries were funded in 1899 and included Sandusky, East Liverpool, and then our own here in Steubenville. Carnegie's program had no official name, and his office handled the letters and mailing of checks.

In 1904, his personal secretary, Mr. James Bertram, took control of the process with a formal process for locating a building site, assuring local operating funds, and architectural review. A pamphlet was published to suggest the best design for libraries constructed with Carnegie funds. The program ended with Carnegie's death in 1919.

Ohio constructed 111 Carnegie Libraries within the program, including 8 libraries on college campuses.  10 Carnegie Libraries in Ohio have been demolished, about half have been adapted for other use, and the others continue as libraries. Carnegie felt that public libraries would be cultural centers for their community.  He did not want them to be named for him, although some were.

He did request that whenever possible, "there should be placed over the entrance of the libraries I build, a representation of the rays of a rising sun, with 'And let there be light' carved into the fa├žade." Very few Carnegie Libraries achieved this request.  Many do have an arched opening which could represent the rising sun. In the end, Andrew Carnegie distributed $ 353 million of his wealth for libraries, in dollars from 1881-1919.