You Had to Ask.

Where and when did Andrew Carnegie donate his first library? And how many libraries were donated in all?
-- Terry Schnavely, Friendship


There's a famous editorial cartoon in which Andrew Carnegie appears as his own Siamese twin. One torso bestows a tiny model library to townsfolk, while the other trunk demands a wage cut from his employees. Like the man himself, Carnegie's libraries were a mixture of sincere generosity and naked self-interest.

After all, just as Carnegie made his millions by sweating out the labor of others whom he paid a pittance, a library demands a sacrifice from those whose books line its shelves. Famed local mystery writer K.C. Constantine empathizes with Carnegie's mill-working drudges in a quirkily brilliant preface to the book Pittsburgh Characters: "Any writer who sees that one copy of one his books in one library has been lent twenty-six times in one year and knows that he was paid only one royalty check from the time the library made the original purchase knows plenty about involuntary servitude. Andy Carnegie satisfied the longings of his Calvinistic soul, but it never once occurred to him to ask a writer how he felt about being part of that institutionalized largesse."

Nor did he ask those whom he built the library for his own overworked employees. In her landmark survey of steel-town life, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town, Margaret Byington observed that "though the people are very proud" of the libraries, "many a man said to me, 'We'd rather they hadn't cut our wages and let us spend the money for ourselves. What use has a man who works twelve hours a day for a library, anyway?'"

As with just about every deal Carnegie made, there were strings attached even to this charitable act. Carnegie offered interested towns enough cash to build the library, usually offering a stipend of about $2 per resident. In return, the town had to agree to shell out an amount equal to 10 percent of that gift each year for upkeep, utilities and books. In smaller towns, this could be a serious burden: In the early days, laws prevented using taxes for cultural amenities like libraries and even some areas that have such taxes today are apparently wont to spend the money on stadiums instead.

Still, unlike Pittsburgh's corporate elite today, Carnegie did not demand naming rights even for the buildings which he (again, unlike the corporate elite of today) actually paid to build. His preference was to place "over the entrance a representation of the rays of the rising sun, and above 'LET THERE BE LIGHT.'"

And literally thousands of communities did see the light. Joseph Frazier Wall, whose biography of Carnegie provided much of the information for this article (and which I borrowed from the Carnegie Library), asserts that Carnegie built 2,811 free libraries in all. Of these, 1,946 were located in the United States at least one in every state except Rhode Island -- 660 in Britain and Ireland, 156 in Canada. A handful of libraries were also scattered in places like New Zealand, the West Indies and even Fiji.

Carnegie himself had been raised on a steady diet of Scottish poet Robert Burns and other writers, and throughout his life he spoke movingly about the powerful impact such reading had on him. So it's fitting Carnegie first library was founded in the town of his birth, Dunfermline, Scotland, on July 27, 1881. In recognition of his gift and his lifetime accomplishments, Carnegie was bestowed the town's "freedom" the English equivalent to the keys of the city. In some ways, the moment marked Carnegie's assumption into the world of letters: Carnegie's autobiography boasts that "[O]nly two signatures upon the roll [of those with Dunfermline's freedom] came between mine and Sir Walter Scott's." Scott, of course, was the author of Ivanhoe, the tale of a knight whose story was much like Carnegie's own in that the metal-clad hero sacrifices life and limb mostly other people's -- to achieve his station in life.

-- Chris Potter
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