Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835 “of poor by honest parents, of good kith and kin”  (Carnegie, 1920)  His father was a damask weaver.  When Carnegie was 13 years old, his family immigrated to the United States.  In his autobiography, Carnegie states that is when he “left school forever.”   After landing in New York City, the Carnegie family moved to Pittsburgh.  Carnegie’s first job in the United States was as a “bobbin boy” in a cotton factory where he earned $1.25 per week.  While in Pittsburgh, Carnegie educated himself with the help of a local business man, Colonel James Anderson.  Carnegie frequently retold the story of Anderson, who “would open his library of four hundred volumes to boys, so that any young man could take out, each Saturday afternoon, a book which could be exchanged for another on the succeeding Saturday.”  Carnegie explained his love of books: 

Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lighted by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty.  And the future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came a new volume could be obtained (id.).     


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In the last quarter of the 19th century, after amassing a large fortune in railroads, oil, iron and steel, Carnegie concentrated on philanthropy.  In 1880, Carnegie established his first free library in his birthplace, Dunfermline, Scotland.   In 1881, his mother laid the cornerstone of that library. The next library gifted by Carnegie was a “public library and hall to Allegheny City – our first home in America.”  The Pittsburgh library was next (id.).  Thousands of libraries followed:  “funds for the erection of 2811 library buildings have been provided, 1946 in the United States, the balance through the English-speaking world, Canada, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, the Fiji Islands, Seychelles and Mauritius” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1919).    

Carnegie divided his donations to libraries into the “retail” and “wholesale” periods.   The “retail” period was from 1886 to 1896.  During that ten-year period, he gave $1,860,869 for 14 endowed buildings in six communities in the United States.  The early buildings were not limited to libraries.  They were community centers with libraries and recreational facilities such as swimming pools.  The “wholesale” period, from 1896 forward, Carnegie turned his library building philanthropy to small communities that had limited access to “cultural institutions.”   During this period, he provided 1,406 American towns with buildings devoted exclusively for use as libraries (Cohen, 2000).  It was the economic ability of Carnegie, and others like him that allowed the proliferation of public libraries.  “Economic ability contributed to the advance of the library in two major ways: (a) the accumulation of private fortunes by philanthropic individuals and (b) a rising level of community wealth; and these produced two aberrant forms of the evolutionary process by which the modern public library arose” (Shera, 1949).    

A self-made man, Carnegie aspired to give other immigrants the opportunity of self-education.  Carnegie stated that the “fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing.  Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.  There is no escape from this” (Carnegie, 1920).  Carnegie detailed his philosophy about philanthropy in two articles one entitled “Wealth” and the other entitled “The Best Fields for Philanthropy.”  The articles were published in the North American Review in June 1899 and December 1889 respectively.  The articles were subsequently combined and reprinted in the Pall Mall Gazette as “The Gospel of Wealth” and are generally known by that title (Cohn).  In “Wealth,” the first article, published in 1889, Carnegie outlined the  mindset of the 19th century philanthropist:    

The main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aid by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.  Neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving.  Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance (Carnegie, 1889, June).    

Carnegie continued in the second article, published in December 1889:    

The first requisite for a really good use of wealth by the millionaire, who has accepted the gospel which proclaims him only a trustee of the surplus that comes to him, is to take care that the purposes for which he spends it shall not have a degrading, pauperizing tendency upon its recipients, but that his trust shall be so administered as to stimulate the best and most aspiring poor of the community to further efforts for their own improvement (Carnegie, 1889, December).    

Image 12: Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1901


In the second article, “The Best Fields for Philanthropy,” Carnegie argued for the creations of  free public libraries:    

 “No millionaire will go far wrong in his search for one of the best forms for the use of his surplus who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it.  John Bright’s words should ring in his ear: “It is impossible for any many to bestow a greater benefit upon a young man than to give him access to books in a free library” (Carnegie, 1889, December).    

As a corollary to Carnegie’s belief in self-education, he also acknowledged that the “result of knowledge [gleaned from libraries] is to make men not violent revolutionists, but cautious evolutionists; not destroyers, but careful improvers” (Harris, 1973, quoting Carnegie, 1894).  Based upon such statements, some have argued that:    

The public library was founded by a group of authoritarian-elitists who saw it first as a means of controlling and directing the behavior of their less fortunate fellows – especially the new immigrants – and secondly, as an intellectual resource for the elite minority – the country’s best men – who would hopefully become the leaders of the political, social, and literary affairs of the nation (Harris).    

Image 13: Melvil Dewey


Carnegie’s sentiments reverberated within the library community.  Melvil Dewey (1918) wrote that the “public library should be a strong hold Americanizing factor where there is a considerable foreign populations.”  Dewey believed that “the Public Library is an institution whose importance is not recognized by the mass of people.  It is our purpose to show it to be of equal value with the public school and the church, these three forming a grand trinity as means of public education and advancement” (Greenwood, 1891).  Both Carnegie and Dewey appear to have believed that the poor immigrant masses could be tamed and controlled through self-education opportunities available in free public libraries.    

In addition to Harris’ self proclaimed “revisionist interpretation” of Carnegie’s largess of public libraries as an elitist white male manipulation designed to control the masses, Carnegie also received criticism at the time he was making his gifts.  George Bobinski, a Carnegie library historian, reports that there were 225 communities who applied for, but did not accept funds from Carnegie to build public libraries, “in the case of forty-seven of these communities, there was an overt expression of local opposition to the Carnegie grant offer through a negative vote of the residents or by the town council” (Bobinski, 1994).  Most often, the rejection of a Carnegie grant was economic, rather than political.    


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