130 Years of Carnegie’s Legacy

By Eve Pearce, European Correspondent

Reporting for the History of Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Libraries

2013 April 10

2013 marks the 130th birthday of the first Carnegie library, built in the philanthropist’s hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland and a poignant milestone in the illustrious history of Carnegie’s legacy.

The first public library to be built with funds from Andrew Carnegie is a stunning work of architecture designed by Edinburgh architect, James Campbell Walker. It was opened in August 1883 and was built using sandstone from local quarries. Walker's design has elements of Gothic architecture, particularly in its gargoyles and entrance, above which hangs Carnegie's motto, "Let there be light".

Carnegie's mother, Mrs Margaret Carnegie, laid the founding stone of the building in 1881, and a marble bust of her now resides in the entrance hall of the library. The Carnegies had not lived in Dunfermline for 33 years when building work began, but Carnegie wanted to pay tribute to the town in which he was born. It is thought that the success of this first library is what led Carnegie to fund the building of a further 2,508 libraries across the English-speaking world.

The library sits in the west of Dunfermline and is just a five-minute walk from the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum on Moodie Street. At the museum, visitors can see the weaver's cottage – in which Carnegie was born – and walk through the memorial hall to find out more about the life of this fascinating businessman and philanthropist.

The economics of giving

Finance is a key part of Carnegie’s work. The fact that building libraries cost a significant amount of money meant that it was unfeasible for towns to build libraries without a grant, especially if they did not have a university library system. Most towns that applied to Carnegie for a grant were given one – meaning that Carnegie was one of the most significant contributors to public investment in his day. Carnegie’s grants were such significant cash injections that the libraries have weathered more than a century of poor funding and local government turmoil. The library at Wednesbury, built with a £5,000 grant in 1908, remains under the control of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council thanks to Carnegie’s investment. This type of finance relieved the burden on smaller communities who would otherwise have struggled to repay the debts incurred in the building of public facilities like libraries. An investment of £4,000 (what Carnegie paid towards the library in Newton-le-Willows, run by St. Helens Metropolitan Borough Council) is the equivalent of over £405,000 today.

The future of Carnegie libraries

Carnegie libraries around the world are being affected by the current financial climate, with several closing down as a result of economic woes and local government austerity drives. The very real threat to the fabric of Carnegie’s legacy takes the form of developers, who (particularly in the United Kingdom) are often inclined to take magnificent examples of public architecture and divide them unsympathetically into flats.

Despite this, libraries remain as important in the 21st Century as they were in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Carnegie’s first library in Dunfermline now has Internet access, photocopiers and ‘bounce and tickle’ sessions for youngsters, but its relevance in the modern world is as real as ever.

Source: Eve Pearce, European Correspondent, History of Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Libraries Web Site.