Waldemar Nielsen called Andrew Carnegie “an extremist in every sense.” When Carnegie gave, he really gave.
And the man who had started life as a poor immigrant considered libraries the single most valuable gift that could be given to a city. He had relevant family history. His father had helped build a little collection of library books back home in Scotland. And in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the young Carnegie had delighted in his access to a generous patron’s personal library. The avid reader had dreamed of giving the same free access to other working boys some day.
In 1881, Carnegie offered Pittsburgh Mayor Robert Lyon $250,000 for a public library building, if the city would fill it with books and maintain it. Lyon pulled together the necessary support. Carnegie, though, was just beginning. He later informed the city leadership that Pittsburgh had grown in size and significance and needed more libraries. He gave an additional $1 million to create eight branch libraries, with the condition that a board of trustees be appointed to see that they operated well. (Henry Frick, of later Frick Art Collection fame, was the first treasurer of the board.)
Nearly 100 architects vied to design Carnegie’s buildings, which ended up being high achievements in themselves. The main library was three stories in a modified Italian Renaissance style, trimmed in bronze and decorated with references to the great creators whose stories could be found inside (Bach, Galileo, etc.). The branch libraries were built soon after in a similarly rich style.
This story would be repeated over and over across the country. Requests for libraries poured in from all around the U.S., and 2,811 libraries were eventually built. Carnegie demanded the cities prove they would sustain the libraries, and most of the collaborations were roaring successes. During his lifetime Carnegie gifted $60 million to this cause, and at one time more than half the libraries in the United States were products of his munificence. Nearly a century later, more than 90 percent of Carnegie’s buildings still existed, and nearly two thirds were still in active use as libraries.
While the scale of Carnegie’s gift is without precedent, other American donors have also created marvelous libraries for public use. In 1857, Baltimore merchant George Peabody donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a combination art gallery/music school/library “which is to be maintained for the free use of all persons who desire to consult it.” The stunning “cathedral of books” remains open to use by the general public. A brilliantly conceived chain of public libraries was later given to Baltimore by Enoch Pratt (an inspiration to Carnegie).
Splendid libraries combining books with art, historic maps, and other rarities were created and eventually given to the public by Henry Huntington, J. P. Morgan, and J. Paul Getty. And in our own day, great libraries continue to be given to America—like the $100 million George Washington library opened in 2013 at Mount Vernon with major support from the Smith family, the Donald Reynolds Foundation, Karen Wright, David Rubenstein, the Mars family, and other donors.
- S. N. D. North (ed.), A Manual of the Public Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie (Google eBook: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1919), p. 293-301, 311