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Richardson: Carnegie’s role in establishing America’s public libraries

Posted: January 15, 2015 9:41 a.m.
Updated: January 16, 2015 1:00 a.m.

 “The man who dies … rich dies disgraced.”

This was Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy on accumulating and disposing of wealth. In his essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” he explained the evolution of industry from small cottage industries to modern capitalism and how the progress from one to the other has elevated all of mankind’s standards of living in industrialized nations. He also explains his philosophy of the proper administration of wealth by rich capitalists and the relationship between them and the paid workers who were always clamoring for higher wages. Andrew Carnegie chose to distribute his wealth in a manner which could enlighten and elevate all levels of the population all over the world. He built libraries in communities who enthusiastically chose to better their fellow man by exposing them to books.

Carnegie began his life in Dunfermline, Scotland as the son of a poor weaver’s family. His uncle introduced him to reading Scottish literature of the day -- Robert Burns’ poetry and writings about the Scottish heroes William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Rob Roy. His family emigrated to Allegheny, Pa., in 1848, seeking a better life. By 1850, Carnegie was working as a telegraph messenger boy for the Ohio Telegraph Company. His keen memory and ability to translate telegraph signals by ear eventually earned him a promotion to telegraph operator.

During this time, Col. James Anderson of Pittsburgh opened his “Mechanics and Apprentices’ Library” containing 400 volumes for use by working boys each Saturday night. They were allowed to check out one book each week in return for the one they brought back. Carnegie, as a telegraph messenger and operator, was not technically considered eligible as a “working boy.” He wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, imploring Col. Anderson to make some exceptions for those who had once worked with their hands. Carnegie was subsequently allowed to use the library and made great use of this opportunity for learning. His eagerness to educate himself advanced him through the telegraph industry until he was working with Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, the man who also taught Carnegie to make business investments. The rest is history. Carnegie’s story was like a Horatio Alger story -- rags to riches based on his own ingenuity and hard work.

In his autobiography, Carnegie wrote of his gratitude to Col. Anderson. “This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what he did for me and my companions. It was from my own early experience that I decided that 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 which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.”

Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic dedication focused on public libraries, but also included world peace, education, and scientific research. Among his contributions were Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Corporation of New York (the granting foundation), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, the Carnegie Hero Fund, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. His libraries, though, spanned the world and perhaps made the largest impact on the American people. Between 1883 and 1929, his fortune built 1,689 public libraries for both whites and blacks in the United States. By 1930, half of the public libraries in the country had been funded by Carnegie. As our Camden Public Library Building celebrates its 100th anniversary, we are thankful his dedication to the public good and learning also touched Camden, South Carolina.

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