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Internet Librarian: Andrew Carnegie, Seattle, and the Internet

Article excerpt

It's February in Seattle. If that conjures images of hip people in Gore-Tex and fleece clutching lattes and dodging rain, you're mostly right. (We don't dodge--what's the point?) This year, though, February will be a little brighter, as a few thousand of our colleagues join us for the Public Library Association conference.

As I was thinking about welcoming the PLA folks to town, I started to contemplate the act of philanthropy that boosted the American public library movement around the turn of the last century. Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of 2,509 libraries in North America and around the world. Without that money, it's difficult to imagine how things might have been different, in the library world and in the greater society.

So--in the spirit of the old Saturday Night Live "What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?" sketch--I pose the question: Would Andrew Carnegie have funded Internet access in libraries?

The simple, and likely correct, answer is no. He paid for buildings and that was about it. He required that communities receiving his money commit to taxation and ongoing library support, to the tune of 10% of his grant, but he rarely gave money for books, or for much of anything else for that matter. Indeed, a number of communities refused grants over that required commitment, and others built buildings that stood empty for lack of materials, support, or staff.

So it's fairly easy to conclude he wouldn't be funding Internet access, certainly not on a continuing basis.

Except ....

Those buildings must have had some sort of infrastructure: heating, lighting, shelves, furniture, equipment. My research assistant and I weren't able to find evidence that spoke to whether or not Carnegie funded that sort of thing or not. I'm not sure that's even the right parallel to consider, but I can't think of a better one. Telephones were only just entering the picture by that time too, so that doesn't help either.

Carnegie's actions (and inactions) don't really tell us much. His motivations were clear, though: He seemed to sincerely want to improve society and give people a means of self-education; but only the buildings seemed of particular interest to him, and not the contents, staff, or operations.

It's impossible not to consider the Gates Foundation library program in this context, and I swear I thought of this column idea before American Libraries' December Bill Gates cover story (p. …