Libraries Fulfilled Andrew Carnegie's Vision

By Thomas, Mary Ann | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 7, 2010 | Go to article overview

Libraries Fulfilled Andrew Carnegie's Vision


Thomas, Mary Ann, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The 1847 classic "How to be a Man, a Book for Boys" by Harvey Newcomb resides in the William R. Oliver Special Collections in Oakland's Carnegie Library.

But then so does "The Ladies' Guide to Needlework."

Those books and several hundred others from the collection of Col. James Anderson of Pittsburgh's North Side peppered the imagination of a poor, immigrant Scotsman who became one of the richest men in the world and built almost half of the libraries in the United States.

Andrew Carnegie's rags-to-riches tale might have never been realized had Anderson not opened his personal library, free of charge, to area youth.

Col. Anderson's private library, really the only local library in what was called Allegheny City, was a refuge to Carnegie and other boys who borrowed one book a week, looking to sharpen their minds and advance.

"When you look at those titles -- books on all subjects -- you could see how Carnegie was influenced in his thoughts," says Greg Priore, archivist at Carnegie Library in Oakland special collections department that houses Carnegie's personal papers and the Anderson collection.

When he arrived in America in 1848 at the age of 13 years, Carnegie was armed with just four years of education in Scotland. But self-study, ambition, raw intelligence and opportunity propelled Carnegie from a bobbin boy in a textile mill to a telegraph operator and, ultimately, to owner of the Carnegie Steel Co.

"Of all the industrialists, he was the most literary and cultivated by far," said Robert Gangewere, of Shaler, author of the upcoming book "Palace of Culture: Andrew Carnegie's Institute and Library in Pittsburgh" and retired editor of Carnegie Magazine.

Although Carnegie made Pittsburgh famous as the steel capital of world, the 1,689 public libraries he built across the country made him famous for opening the world of knowledge to ordinary citizens.

Free is the operative word here. "Free to the People" is etched in granite near the names of Moliere and Newton, carved in a ribbon that laces the facade of the Oakland library.

Library services were free to patrons, but the institutions were never free to the local governments, nor meant to be.

When Carnegie launched his program to pay for the construction of libraries across the country in the late 1900s, citizens throughout sent letters, wanting libraries in their towns.

Carnegie offered this deal: He would pay for the building, but it was up to the town to pay for the upkeep and operations of the library.

Ironically, as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh with its 19 locations struggles with funding and proposes to close some branches, it is the local governments that are asked to support the libraries, just as Carnegie had asked of them more than a century ago.

SHARE THE WEALTH

Carnegie paid more than $41 million -- $800 million in 1996 dollars -- to build public libraries throughout the country, according to Theodore Jones in "Carnegie Libraries Across America."

Add in 830 public libraries in other English-speaking nations, and academic and specialized libraries, and the total cost was more than $68 million.

In his essay "Wealth" in 1889, Carnegie "...criticized his own class, the wealthy, especially those who had inherited money," Jones writes.

"As he saw it, wealth was a responsibility placed in his hands to oversee for public good," Jones writes. According to the author, Carnegie's most repeated line was: "The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced."

Carnegie gave away 90 percent of his fortune, more than $350 million, according to some estimates.

He embraced a public project that changed his own life: libraries. Investing in a library did more than just throw money at a project for the needy, keeping the recipients' needy. A library was an investment where the people who benefited were the people who took it upon themselves to self-study, like Carnegie.

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