No name is more associated with public libraries than that of Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie has his name on a lot of things, to be sure — Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University, to name a couple — but for most of the 20th century, America and a good part of the world paired the name Carnegie with the word “library.” That was certainly the case in the 1950s and 60s in Nashville, where I grew up.
— the first part should be devoted to learning as much as possible;
— the second should be devoted to gaining as much wealth as possible;
— the third should be devoted to giving away as much of that wealth as possible to causes that would advance the public good.
Carnegie followed his own dictum. He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835 into an intellect-rich but working-class family, whose fate was buffeted by the changing winds of industrialization. When he was 12, he immigrated with his family to western Pennsylvania. He had little opportunity for formal schooling and worked in a number of jobs to help support the family.
The young Carnegie enjoyed reading and learning but would have had little opportunity to do either — books were expensive and out of reach for boys of his class — except for Colonel James Anderson, a local man who let boys like Andrew borrow one book each Saturday night from his 400-volume library. Andrew rarely missed a Saturday, and his enjoyment of reading turned into a passion.
Carnegie never forgot Anderson’s generosity, and he later wrote that he vowed at the time, he would give other young boys the same opportunity if he had the chance.
He did, in fact, have the chance, and he kept his vow. Carnegie worked hard and worked smart at every job he had. He paid attention to the details and found ways to be more efficient and more productive. He paid attention to the people around him and gathered a network of friends and business associates. He saw opportunities and acted on them. His personal charm and his wide range of knowledge — a product of his vociferous readings as a lad — drew people into his orbit.
By the turn of the 20th century, Carnegie had built a vast steel empire and had become by far the richest man in the world. In 1901 he sold his steel interests for more than $300 million.
More than a decade before that, Carnegie had begun donating money for public libraries, and after his retirement he devoted much of his energy to his philanthropic endeavors. In all, he helped build and fund more than 3,000 libraries, many of which would have never existed but for his donations. He once wrote:
It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive… as the founding of a public library.”
(Read more about the life of Andrew Carnegie here.)
And speaking of public libraries . . .
Sue Halpern writes in the current New York Review of Books:
A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal.
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