Andrew Carnegie – Let there be light

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For anyone who works in libraries the name Andrew Carnegie surely carries special significance. Lesley Whyte who was born and spent much of her childhood in Scotland, investigates a fellow Scot and advocate of libraries…​

Even before I started my career, Carnegie Libraries fostered my love of books, learning and the sense of wonder such buildings have consecrated in our culture. Part of my early life was spent in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis where I would study in the library; my working life started in Glasgow where the creation of the whole library network was supported by Carnegie; BDS is based in Dumfries where the central library was funded by Carnegie and named by him after the MP for Dumfries, William Ewart, who drew up the Libraries Act of 1851; even the small town where I live today has a Carnegie library at the top of the hill overlooking the town.

Yet it was not just in Scotland that Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline on the 25th of November 1835, supported the building of libraries. The influence of Carnegie Libraries exists around the world, including across the United Kingdom, North America, Africa, Australasia and the South Pacific, and the Carribean. There are even Carnegie Libraries in Belgium, France and Serbia. So who was this man from a poor background in Scotland who set about changing the world and how did he become one of the most influential men to have lived in the past 200 years and a lover of libraries?

Many will know of Carnegie as one of the richest men who ever lived. If alive today his wealth has been estimated to equal $300 billion dollars. Yet Carnegie started life from a poor background. As a boy he listened to readings and discussions about books from the Tradesman’s Subscription Library, which his father, William, an active Chartist, helped create. However, the ancient town of Dunfermline, in Fife, fell on hard times during the economic depression of 1848 and Andrew’s father had to borrow money to emigrate to America in search of a better life.

Andrew Carnegie’s first job in America was as a worker in a bobbin factory. In 1850, he became a telegraph messenger boy in the Pittsburgh Office of the Ohio Telegraph Company, at $2.50 per week. This gave him free admission to the local theatre. Already introduced to the work of Robert Burns in Scotland, Andrew now became familiar with the plays of Shakespeare. His education and passion for reading was encouraged by Colonel James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 volumes to working boys each Saturday night. The mixture of hard work, education and an eye for an opportunity were already evident in the teenage boy.

Andrew Carnegie earned most of his fortune in the steel industry. In the 1870s, he founded the Carnegie Steel Company. By the 1890s, the company was the largest and most profitable industrial enterprise in the world. However his passion for learning and a special interest in social theory grew with his wealth. Carnegie believed in more than making money. He wrote:

“I propose to take an income no greater than $50,000 per annum! Beyond this I [will] spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes!” And he continued, “No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”

He continued his studies and wrote influential works including “Triumphant Democracy” in 1886 which advocated that the American republican system of government was superior to the British monarchical system, and “Wealth”, in 1889. Gladstone requested that the latter be published in England, where it appeared as “The Gospel of Wealth”. In it Carnegie argues that the life of a wealthy industrialist should comprise two parts. The first part was the gathering and the accumulation of wealth. The second was for the subsequent distribution of this wealth to benevolent causes. Philanthropy made life worthwhile while a “man who dies rich dies disgraced”.

Nearly all of the 3000 Carnegie Libraries were built according to “The Carnegie Formula”, which required matching contributions from the town that received the donation. A town had to demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation, and provide free service to all. This formula was adapted in the UK to comply with William Ewart’s Public Libraries Act.

The first of Carnegie’s public libraries opened in Dunfermline in 1883 where Carnegie’s mother laid the foundation stone on a family visit back to their homeland. Carved over the entrance, the locally quarried sandstone building displays the sun with the words “Let there be light”. He went on to fund the building of 380 libraries across Britain, including academic and university libraries, a Welsh language library and the Central Library in Edinburgh.

The first library in the United States was built in 1889 in Braddock, Pennsylvania, home to one of the Carnegie Steel Company’s mills. The rapid growth in support for library construction in the US coincided with the rise of women’s clubs in the post-Civil War America. These were responsible for long-term fundraising and lobbying within their communities to support library operations and collection development.

The architectural style that developed over the coming years was typically simple and formal, welcoming patrons to enter through a prominent doorway, nearly always accessed via a staircase symbolising a person’s elevation by learning. Outside many libraries was a lamppost or lantern, meant as a symbol of enlightenment.

Carnegie believed in giving to the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.” By the time Andrew Carnegie died in August, 1919, he had given away $350,000,000. A further $125 million was placed with the Carnegie Corporation to carry on his good works.