100 Years of Carnegie Libraries

100 Years of Carnegie Libraries

Mar 18, 2021 Howard Husock

March 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the first of more than a thousand free public libraries in the United States funded through the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant turned steel magnate—and one of the wealthiest Americans in history. More than 900 of the architect-designed libraries still stand, and have served untold numbers throughout the century. 

It’s well worth appreciating the nature of Carnegie’s gift. There is little doubt that he devoted thought to it; he would write The Gospel of Wealth, his treatise on his philosophy of philanthropy: He deemed “disgraced” the person who would die wealthy. Philanthropy, in other words, is a responsibility of the financially successful.

But Carnegie would lead the way in envisioning philanthropy as something more than charity. His interest lay in encouraging the poor to gain the tools needed to improve their lot—at a time when libraries were rare and literacy uncommon. 

Notably, the fact that not many Americans could read did not discourage him from ultimately directing, by 1919, more than $56 million toward the construction of local libraries (that’s more than $800 million today). Carnegie was betting that making books available would change norms—encouraging literacy by making books available at no cost to the reader. This is philanthropy guided by vision. Carnegie believed deeply in the market economy—and also that it was crucial to prepare citizens to participate in it. This contrasts with too much current foundation grantmaking, which over-emphasizes system change rather than uplift.

What’s more, Carnegie anticipated the contemporary discussion about the relationship between major philanthropic gifts and democracy. He did not move ahead on his own to buy property and build. Instead, he relied on communities to decide whether they wanted a library—and, if they did, they’d have to provide the land and, crucially, agree to financially support operations and maintenance. He often worked with local women’s clubs toward that end—reinforcing the importance of local volunteer organizations. (Women’s groups in the nineteenth century had already made libraries a priority.) He set out not to take over local civil society but to complement it. This contrasts with the expansion of government programs, post-1960, which would contract with formerly independent civil society groups—and effectively control them.

As a Progressive in his aspiration for those of modest means, Carnegie accepted the boundaries of his day. Notably, he funded separate libraries throughout the South for white and African-American citizens. In doing so, he can be said to have laid the seeds for a post-Jim Crow society. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, credited a segregated Carnegie library in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, with expanding his intellectual horizons.

Today, Carnegie libraries, well worth visiting for their architecture alone, can still be found in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn’s Brownsville section. Long after his death, Carnegie’s philanthropy continues.