You’ve probably heard that the Park Ridge Public Library is a “Carnegie Library,” meaning that it was first built with funds donated by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early part of the 20th century. More than 2,000 libraries were built with Carnegie money between 1883 and 1929 (nearly half of all public and university libraries in the U.S. at that time), and to understand why this has particular significance today, it’s worth knowing a little more about Carnegie himself.
Born in 1835 in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie had little formal education (his father was a handloom worker), but he grew up in a family with a deep respect for books and learning, combined with a powerful work ethic. The Carnegies came to America when Andrew was just 13. He immediately got his first job as a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill, earning $1.20 for a 72-hour work week. Yet he was determined to move up in the world, and within three years was working as a telegraph operator.
During this period Carnegie came into contact with a retired merchant named Colonel James Anderson. A progressive thinker when it came to working class boys, Anderson offered them the use of his personal library on Saturdays, and Carnegie took advantage of the opportunity to improve his mind. In fact, “improvement” hardly begins to describe the voracious reading habits of Carnegie, who as time passed began to outline a personal philosophy of the self-made man that still influences society today – and lies at the heart of his vision for public libraries.
“This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what (Anderson) did for me and my companions,” Carnegie wrote years later. “It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community.”
Carnegie determined that there were three stages in a man’s life. The first part, he said, should be dedicated to amassing a good education, and in his view access to books played a crucial role.
The second third of life should be spent amassing a fortune. Carnegie applied as much energy to getting rich in the steel industry as he did to his other projects (at times arousing criticism – although by accounts he was less blood-thirsty than other 19th Century tycoons), and might have died one of the richest men in the country in terms of personal income, had he not already given most of his fortune away to philanthropic causes.
Indeed, in the last third of his life, Carnegie proved astounding in the sheer extent of his generosity. He treated philanthropy as the true purpose of his life – one that he felt had the potential to most deeply affect humanity for the better – and he worked from a clear plan. The case of the Carnegie Library project provides a good example.
Nearly all Carnegie libraries were built according to the “Carnegie Formula,” which required matching contributions from the town receiving the donation. In 1913 a town needed to:
• Demonstrate the need for a public library
• Provide the building site
• Annually provide 10% of the cost of the library’s construction to support operations
• Provide free service for all
Town officials had to respond to a list of questions that helped determine their eligibility. Few towns were rejected, for this was a time in American history when young communities like Park Ridge were growing at a rapid pace, and the interest in providing cultural and learning opportunities for residents was keen.
Carnegie’s influence on the modern library went beyond simply having them built. He has been credited for ensuring patron access to open book stacks, where people could browse at length and choose a book to read (prior to this, a clerk was required to retrieve books from closed stacks). The young boy from Dunfermline, Scotland knew what it meant to him to have free access to his employer’s library, and years later he wanted to make sure it remained that way for others.
It would be easy to think of Andrew Carnegie’s vision for libraries as a quaint relic of the past, especially as the layout of libraries has changed. The risk of looking at public libraries today as little more than information centers is to believe that technology has the potential to replace them. Yet libraries are more than sources of facts and data, or recreation and entertainment – although they offer all this and more. Above all they are places where people can still come to find the tools that can change their lives for the better. Literacy, enlightenment, and the pursuit of knowledge remain firmly at their foundation.
As Carnegie once wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
One hundred years later that still holds true, and it’s worth a celebration in itself.