On March 18, 1889, the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock opened in a suburb of Pittsburgh. It was the first library donated by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in America. From 1886-1919, Carnegie donated more than $40 million to open 1,679 libraries across the country. He also built additional libraries around the world. These libraries were in communities both small and large and opened up a world of learning, entertainment, and possibilities to millions of patrons. Carnegie was a Scottish-American immigrant who made his fortune in the railroad and steel industries. Before the end of his life, he donated nearly 90% of his fortune ($350 million) to various causes.
During the second half of the 19th century, the idea of “free” libraries began to spread. Carnegie, who was born in Scotland in 1835, immigrated to America as a boy after industrialization forced his father out of the textile business. The Carnegie family settled in the suburbs of Pittsburgh where young Andrew got a job as a messenger boy. There he met Colonel James Anderson. Each Saturday, Anderson opened his personal library and allowed young workers like Carnegie to borrow books. The books opened up a new world for Andrew who vowed that if he ever became wealthy, he would provide this generosity to others.
Carnegie spent the next 50 years building his fortune, though occasionally his methods were scrutinized. He faced criticism in 1892 when workers at his Homestead Steel Mill decided to strike over low wages and better working conditions. The strike spiraled into a violent gun battle requiring a militia to restore peace. One editorial complained, “Ten thousand Carnegie public libraries would not compensate…for the evils resulting from the Homestead lockout.” Some argued that Carnegie built his fortune on the backs of poor workers. Carnegie however, believed that a library was one way that workers could improve themselves. He wanted libraries housed in beautiful buildings, with big windows and ample light. This was a change for many towns that housed makeshift libraries in churches, stables, or at the back of shops.
Carnegie devised a plan to award grants for library construction for communities in need. Grants were conditional upon three conditions. First, municipalities had to own the property where the library would be built. Second, the property had to be large enough for future expansion if demand arose, and third, grant recipients had to pay 10% of the gift for building maintenance.
Initially, when an application was approved, a community could build any type of building they wanted. Carnegie felt some of the buildings were not an efficient use of space and later insisted on approving plans before construction began. He even wrote a book, Notes on Library Building, and sent it to each community that received a grant. The standards outlined in the book meant that many Carnegie libraries looked similar. They had high ceilings and spacious interiors. The exterior was often stone or brick. The high ceilings meant that access to the library from street level usually included a flight of stairs. These stairs became a hallmark of Carnegie libraries, and some claimed they represented climbing towards wisdom or working towards knowledge. The stairs, however, proved a hindrance to older or disabled patrons.
By the time Carnegie issued the last library grant in 1919, most states had at least one Carnegie library, while other states had many (California had 142)! Some Carnegie libraries are still in use today. Others are no longer standing or have been converted into civic centers or commercial businesses. Do you have a Carnegie library in your community? To learn more about Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie libraries, search Newspapers.com™ today!