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Andrew Carnegie

Short biography of Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie (Kahr-NAY-gee) was born on November 25, 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland.  After moving to the United States, he worked a series of railroad jobs.  By 1889, fifty years later, he owned Carnegie Steel Corporation, the largest of its kind in the world.  In 1901 he sold his business and dedicated his time to expanding his philanthropic work.  The sale of his business earned him more than $200 million.  At the age of 65, Carnegie decided to spend the rest of his days helping others.  While he had begun his philanthropic work years earlier by building libraries and making donations, Carnegie expanded his efforts in the early twentieth century.

Carnegie, an avid reader for much of his life, donated approximately $5 million to the New York Public Library so that the library could open several branches in 1901.  Devoted to learning, he established the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, which is now known as Carnegie-Mellon University in 1904.  The next year he created the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1905.  With his strong interest in world peace, he formed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910.  He made numerous other donations, and it is said that more than 2,800 libraries were opened with his support.


Library giving, except for so large an undertaking as the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, quickly became a business, as efficient and standardized in procedure as the filling of orders for steel billets at Homestead or Duquesne.  A town council would apply for a Carnegie Library, and Carnegie's secretary, James Bertram, would acknowledge the request and inform the municipal government of the specifications to be met before the grant could be made.  The town would first have to provide a site, if possible centrally located in town, then the governing board of the community would have to pledge an annual appropriation for books and maintenance which would amount to 10 percent of the Carnegie gift.  The size of Carnegie's gift was based upon the population of the town, usually $2 per capita, which worked very well for cities from 25,000 to 100,000 in population.  In the latter instance, for example, Carnegie would give $200,000 for the building, and the city would pledge $20,000 a year for maintenance.  But in many of the very small towns that also received gifts of libraries, the annual amount pledged in order to receive the gift might be as low as $200 a year.  One of the few criticisms of Carnegie libraries is that small town libraries would have been much better to have pooled their resources for a single library much as communities would later do in consolidating public school systems.  These small town libraries which are considered by some to barely provide the minimum essentials of good service, are largely responsible for the attitude of benevolent apathy with which so many people regard public libraries.  But who can say how many youths and lonely old people living in towns like Hawarden, IA, in those preradio-television days, found their only intellectual excitement or companionship in the Carnegie Free Public Library.  Carnegie has been quoted as saying about public libraries, " I believe that it outranks any other one thing that a community can do to benefit its people.  It is the never failing spring in the desert."

At first Carnegie made no attempt to provide building plans along with his grant of money for the building, leaving the architectural design to be determined by each locality.  But there were so many bad buildings erected in these early years of library giving, and so many complaints from librarians who had to contend with functional problems, that Carnegie, and later the Carnegie Corporation of New York, sent out standard plans along with the monetary grant.  What may have been gained in functional efficiency, however, was lost in architectural variety.  Soon, in small towns all over America, there came to be an architectural style know as Wesley Romanesque.  A stranger in the community seldom had difficulty in spotting the Carnegie Library and the Methodist Church, which in many towns confronted each other across the square.

The public generally believes that Carnegie insisted that his name be engraved above the front entrance of the libraries he gave.  This was not true.  But certainly he never objected to its being done, and upon request, he would provide the library with a photograph of himself, which would hang in the place of honor just inside the main door.  As he made clear to his applicants, the one thing he did desire was "that there should be placed over the entrance to the Libraries a representation of the rays of a rising sun, and above 'LET THERE BE LIGHT,' and I hope you can have this on the building."  Not all communities complied with this request, however.  In the years that lay ahead, and up to the time of his death, Carnegie and later the Carnegie Corporation would give 2811 free public libraries, of which 1946 were located in the United States.  Of the remainder, there were 660 in Britain, including Ireland, 156 in Canada, 23 in New Zealand, 13 in South Africa, 6 in the British West Indies, 4 in Australia, and 1 each in the islands of Seychelles, Mauritius, and Fiji.  The total cost of all libraries was $50,364,808.00 ($50 million or $280 million today);  those in the United States cost $44,854,731.25.  Every state in the Union except Rhode Island had at least one Carnegie Library, and there were also libraries in the District of Columbia and the territories of Hawaii and Puerto Rico.  Most had gone to three Midwestern states 164 to Indiana, 114 to Illinois, and 104 to Iowa, of which only 99 were built.  California also got 122 libraries.

There continued to be a steady stream of criticism from those who felt Carnegie was doing too much and from those who felt he was doing too little ("a building without books is not a library").  But of all the criticism he was to receive for his philanthropic enterprises, the critical comments on his library program bothered him the least.  He knew that no other gifts were as popular or had as direct an impact upon as large a number of people as did his public libraries.  Virtually nonexistent in the United States before 1880, the free library, as a result of his philanthropy, became almost as much a part of America as the schoolhouse or church.  A conservative estimate of the size of the reading public making use of Carnegie libraries in the United States a generation after he began his library program would be 35 million persons a day.  Carnegie liked to boast that the sun never set on Carnegie Free Public Libraries.  They would remain his most enduring claim to popular fame.  It pleased him especially to think that his gift forced the community itself to match that gift over every ten-year period, decade after decade.

At his own request, Carnegie was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in North Tarrytown, New York.  His grave is marked by a Celtic cross, cut from stone quarried near Skibo.  The cross bears the simple message:  Andrew Carnegie

                                                                                                            Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, 25 November 1835

                                                                                                            Died in Lenox, Massachusetts, 11 August 1919.

This resource is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by State Library of Iowa.