Andrew Carnegie: ‘Free to the People’
By Angela Disipio
If Andrew Carnegie were alive today he would be amazed at the number of libraries thorough out the world, many library historians imagine, but they feel he would also be shocked at the news of so many closing.
Oversights in the steel industry giant’s plan for the Carnegie Libraries, according to many, could be what led to the current financial situation.
Carnegie had the foresight and understanding of the importance of access to books, but there was no way he could have foreseen the path that the library would take says Jacqui Lazo, Carnegie Library Board of Trustees Chairwoman.
According to Lazo, Carnegie’s intent and mission is always in mind when decisions are made.
“One thing that surprises me is that the library is so much more than a place to get books,” she said. “It is a safe haven, a community center and much more.”
“These dynamic changes make it harder on communities in terms of funding,” Lazo added.
“It costs a lot more to run a library today than it did at the turn of the century,” Glenn Walsh a Carnegie Library Historian said. “Labor costs are a lot higher and today libraries provide many more services than just books.”
Walsh explains that as stipulation for receiving a library neighborhoods had to agree to the Carnegie Formula. The deal was that Carnegie would erect the building, and the community was to give ten percent of the cost of the building each year.
Carnegie gave five libraries as endowments to the towns in which they were built. His very first library in his hometown in Scotland, and those in Carnegie, Braddock, Homestead, and the City of Duquesne, the last three being in areas where he had built his steel mills. Each of these libraries was exempt from requiring any town funding beyond initial 93,000-dollar endowment.
According to Walsh the city of Pittsburgh was also relieved of paying the entire 10 percent on their million-dollar building. Carnegie provided special instructions requiring only a 40,000-dollar annual subsidy from the city.
Walsh contends that until 1995 both the city and the county supplemented any additional money the library needed each year to ensure that costs were covered. In 1995 the Allegheny Regional Asset District took responsibility for the subsidies of both the city and the county.
“As $40,000 is now a drop-in-the-bucket in regards to the city budget, the city agreed to continue contributing that amount to the library to comply with the original agreement with Andrew Carnegie,” Walsh said, explaining that with RAD satisfying the original agreement, the city was legally no longer obligated to give a cent.
Ron Baraff, a historian at Rivers of Steel, feels that in addition to RAD both cuts in the State budget, the fact that Carnegie’s basic plan never accounted for inflation, and poor planning on the city’s part also play apart in the library’s financial situation.
“It’s analogous to what happened to the [steel] mills,” Baraff said. “Those in charge never put money back in when times were good, and now that times are bad the buildings are dilapidating and there’s just too much to do.”
Baraff argues that the library’s role has not changed in the last century. He challenges the notion that Carnegie ever considered the library as solely a book depository.
“The original library was not just that. There was a music hall and a gymnasium,” Baraff said. “It was for body, mind and soul. It was for the complete person.”
Moreover, Baraff feels that in many communities libraries have evolved into a central hub, almost like a community center, where people can go to feel safe and learn.
“If Andrew Carnegie were alive he would be thrilled that the communities have adapted their libraries to their needs,” Baraff explained referring to modern technological advances. “It’s just that life has changed.”
Baraff feels that Carnegie’s philosophy, which essentially led to his furnishing the English-speaking world with libraries, has been all but forgotten. Carnegie felt that it was incumbent upon those with the means to help those without. Although Baraff would debate Carnegie’s original meaning, that those in need were intellectually inferior, he feels it is ironic that the branched slated to close are in communities that Carnegie would say was most in need of library.
As a boy, the only access Carnegie had to books was the private 400-volume collection of Colonel James Anderson, who on Saturday afternoons opened his doors to neighborhood boys. Ed Meena, a history professor at Point Park University, says that this first semblance of a public library in Pittsburgh inspired his philanthropy work.
According to Meena, Carnegie never forgot this gesture and he immortalized Anderson by having his likeness sculpted as the face on the Reader statue at the very first Carnegie library in the city of Pittsburgh.
“Remember that Carnegie wasn’t always wealthy, his first job was as a bobbin boy, earning him one dollar and 20 cents a week,” Meena said. “It wasn’t until he sold his company to J.P. Morgan for 400 million dollars that he became the richest man in the world.”
It immediately after that he began his altruistic life.
“He couldn’t give it away fast enough, but he spent the rest of his life trying,” Walsh said. “He is still giving money away,” referring to the Carnegie Corporation in New York, which he established to continue his philanthropic work after his death.
Walsh says that it was this attitude that led Carnegie to be labeled as the father of modern philanthropy.
Although he did not establish the first public library in Pittsburgh, Carnegie did introduce the first free library, consecrating each building with the words “Free to the People.”
One of the more contentious ideas proposed to generate money for the libraries, is to charge nominal membership fees.
Although some like Baraff feel that a small rate is fair and would be supported by most in the community, others feel that it is contradictory to the whole idea of Carnegie’s library.
“Carnegie would rather have fewer libraries than see people being charged to use them,” Walsh said. “It is the antithesis what a library is.”
Despite his furiously impassioned manner with which he speaks of the libraries, Walsh doubts that any of the closings are likely to occur.
“It just isn’t going to happen,” he said alluding to conversations he has had with City Council members. “They will find a temporary fix which will lead to a permanent fix after that.”
“I think this could be a set up for shock value,” Walsh speculated. “A stunt to try to get more money from the city and from RAD.”
“This is absolutely not a publicity stunt,” Lazo attests.
“Hopefully something or someone will step in and help out,” she said. “We certainly have lots of interest in helping, but there is no certainty. Anything can happen.”