Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was one of the most successful businessmen in America. Called alternately a captain of industry or a robber baron, he had little training, but with his “bootstraps” approach to life, he made millions of dollars, before finally retiring in the early 1900s and concentrating fully on philanthropy. As with his approach to business, his philanthropic approach was no holds-barred and extraordinarily extensive, and one of his enterprises, the invention of the Carnegie Library, still stands in many places today as an example of his generosity in later life.
Carnegie had always felt that the importance of reading could not be underestimated, and he had used what resources he could in order to acquire more information and education as he rose in business. He felt most people should have access to books on a large scale, and began building public libraries in 1883, the first in his hometown in Scotland.
Though there would be many libraries funded and built by Carnegie in the UK, the majority, over 1600, were built in the US, often in small towns. These buildings were impressive architecturally, and designed in many different styles. Most were simply open to the public but some were part of universities too. Virtually all US states ended up with at least one Carnegie Library, except for Alaska, Delaware and Rhode Island, and some states had huge numbers of them. Indiana had the most, and California placed a close second.
One of the key features of a Carnegie Library was the open stack style. This meant people could select their own books by browsing, instead of asking a librarian to recommend or furnish them with books. The varied architectural structures of these libraries were impressive but also inviting. A public library in a town could be a place people wanted to go and wanted to use, and Carnegie put most towns to the test in order to determine if he or his philanthropic organizations would build a library there. The basic test was demonstration of need, commitment to spending certain funds to maintain the library, and donation of property on which the Carnegie library could be built.
People may still be familiar with these libraries today because about half of them remain library buildings. A few haven’t survived things like retrofitting, and others became museums or even private buildings. The last library built under Carnegie’s program was completed in 1930, several years after the philanthropist’s death.
Timing for the building of each Carnegie library was auspicious. Many small and large towns were greatly interested in building public libraries at the end of the 19th century. Carnegie’s generosity was matched by public interest in having a library available. In all, the program of this philanthropist built over 2500 libraries, a considerable accomplishment. Those in a town that still have one, are certainly invited to visit them often and marvel at the determination which can change philanthropy quite as easily as it can contribute to success in business.