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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie’s decision to support library construction developed out of his own experience. Born in 1835, he spent his first 12 years in the coastal town of Dunfermline, Scotland. There he listened to men read aloud and discuss books borrowed from the Tradesmen’s Subscription Library that his father, a weaver, had helped create. Carnegie began his formal education at age eight, but had to stop after only three years. The rapid industrialization of the textile trade forced small businessmen like Carnegie’s father out of business. As a result, the family sold their belongings and immigrated to Allegheny, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although these new circumstances required the young Carnegie to go to work, his learning did not end. After a year in a textile factory, he became a messenger boy for the local telegraph company. Some of his fellow messengers introduced him to Col. James Anderson of Allegheny, who every Saturday opened his personal library to any young worker who wished to borrow a book. Carnegie later said the colonel opened the windows through which the light of knowledge streamed. In 1853, when the colonel’s representatives tried to restrict the library’s use, Carnegie wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch defending the right of all working boys to enjoy the pleasures of the library. More important, he resolved that, should he ever be wealthy, he would make similar opportunities available to other poor workers.

Over the next half-century Carnegie accumulated the fortune that would enable him to fulfill that pledge. During his years as a messenger, Carnegie had taught himself the art of telegraphy. This skill helped him make contacts with the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he went to work at age 18. During his 12-year railroad association he rose quickly, ultimately becoming superintendent of the Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh division. He simultaneously invested in a number of other businesses, including railroad locomotives, oil, and iron and steel. In 1865, Carnegie left the railroad to manage the Keystone Bridge Company, which was successfully replacing wooden railroad bridges with iron ones. By the 1870s he was concentrating on steel manufacturing, ultimately creating the Carnegie Steel Company. In 1901 he sold that business for $250 million.

Carnegie then retired and devoted the remainder of his life to philanthropy. Even before selling Carnegie Steel he had begun to consider what to do with his immense fortune. In 1889 he wrote a famous essay entitled "The Gospel of Wealth," in which he stated that wealthy men should live without extravagance, provide moderately for their dependents, and distribute the rest of their riches to benefit the welfare and happiness of the common man--with the consideration to help only those who would help themselves. "The Best Fields for Philanthropy," his second essay, listed seven fields to which the wealthy should donate: universities, libraries, medical centers, public parks, meeting and concert halls, public baths, and churches. He later expanded this list to include gifts that promoted scientific research, the general spread of knowledge, and the promotion of world peace. Many of these organizations continue to this day: the Carnegie Corporation in New York, for example, helps support "Sesame Street."

Because of his background, Carnegie was particularly interested in public libraries. At one point he stated a library was the best possible gift for a community, since it gave people the opportunity to improve themselves. His confidence was based on the results of similar gifts from earlier philanthropists. In Baltimore, for example, a library given by Enoch Pratt had been used by 37,000 people in one year. Carnegie believed that the relatively small number of public library patrons were of more value to their community than the masses who chose not to benefit from the library.

Carnegie divided his donations to libraries into the "retail" and "wholesale" periods. During the retail period, 1886 to 1896, he gave $1,860,869 for 14 endowed buildings in six communities in the United States. These buildings were actually community centers, containing recreational facilities such as swimming pools as well as libraries. In the years after 1896, known as the wholesale period, Carnegie no longer supported urban multipurpose buildings. Instead he gave $39,172,981 to smaller communities that had limited access to cultural institutions. His gifts provided 1,406 towns with buildings devoted exclusively to libraries. Over half his grants were for less than $10,000. Although most of the towns receiving gifts were in the Midwest, in total 46 states benefited from Carnegie’s plan.

Andrew Carnegie stopped making gifts for library construction following a report made to him by Dr. Alvin Johnson, an economics professor. In 1916 Dr. Johnson visited 100 of the existing Carnegie libraries and studied their social significance, physical aspects, effectiveness, and financial condition. His final report concluded that to be really effective, the libraries needed trained personnel. Buildings had been provided, but now it was time to staff them with professionals who would stimulate active, efficient libraries in their communities. Libraries already promised continued to be built until 1923, but after 1919 all financial support was turned to library education.

When Andrew Carnegie died in 1919 at age 84, he had given nearly one-fourth of his life to causes in which he believed. His gifts to various charities totalled nearly $350 million, almost 90 percent of his fortune. Carnegie regarded all education as a means to improve people’s lives, and libraries provided one of his main tools to help Americans build a brighter future.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How did progress and industrialization affect Carnegie, both when he was young, and later in life?

2. How much formal education did Carnegie have? What factors contributed to his interest in books and reading?

3. What did Carnegie believe wealthy people should do with their money? Why did he think that? Do you agree?

4. How did supporting libraries fit with Carnegie's past and his beliefs?

Reading 1 was compiled from George S. Bobinski, Carnegie Libraries (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969); Andrew Carnegie, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, reprint (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1920 [1986]); Barry Sears, "On the Trail of Carnegie Libraries," Antiques and Collecting (February 1994); Gerald R. Shields, "Recycling Buildings for Libraries," Public Libraries (March/April 1994).


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