Carnegie Libraries

Andrew Carnegie at a young age
The young Andrew Carnegie Photo Courtesy of Carnegie Corporation of New York

Carnegie's early years

"The man who has the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else too."
— Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born on November 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, an industrial town in the south of Scotland. His parents were William Carnegie, a craft weaver, and Margaret Carnegie. His father had a strong influence on Andrew. William's involvement in the British Chartist movement, as well as the Tradesmen's Subscription Library he helped create, exposed Andrew to radical politics and a democratic world view.

[Photo]Andrew Carnegie was required to leave his formal education behind to help support his family. His father's business suffered from the industrialization of the weaving industry in Great Britain, and in 1848, the Carnegies moved from their native Scotland to the United States. The young Carnegie eventually settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He took various industrial jobs before gaining employment at the Pennsylvania railroad.

As its assistant to the superintendent, Carnegie learned about the inner workings of the industry and about investment. He made a small fortune by the age of 30 by applying his shrewd business skills to the markets, investing in railroads, oil, and iron. He made the real fortune for which he is best known, however, once he seized hold of the growing steel industry by founding the Carnegie Steel Company in 1889. It became the largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Carnegie's philanthropic initiatives

Group photo circa 1911 of the Carnegie Corporation members"People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents." — Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie poured a great deal of his energies and resources into institutions which would support and further his dedication to free education for all and the notion of a meritocracy. By the age of 35, Carnegie decided to leave his business enterprises behind and concentrate on philanthropy and writing, rather than personal profit. He sold the Carnegie Steel Company in 1901 to J.P Morgan for $480,000,000 and set up numerous institutions to fund educational projects around the world. Of these, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace still operate today. In his view public libraries, however, were the best way to realize his commitment to free education for all. As his introduction to the opening of one of his free public libraries says: It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself... My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to… sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.

Carnegie and free public libraries

Brantford Public Library"There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration."Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie believed the best way to provide free education and to foster growing communities was through the establishment of public libraries. These could provide the public with the tools necessary to succeed, regardless of their socio-economic background.

In his lifetime, Andrew Carnegie donated $56 million to build 2,509 libraries throughout the world. A typical Carnegie grant was about $10,000 — approximately $650,000 in today's dollars. These funds contributed significantly to the development of small communities around the world, providing much needed services, as well as many spectacular buildings for which many towns and cities are known. Of the 125 Carnegie libraries in Canada, 111 were built in Ontario. In total, Andrew Carnegie spent $2,556,600 on the construction of libraries in Canada.

To realize his vision of free and democratic education, Carnegie and his longtime friend and business partner James Bertram established the "Carnegie Formula" — the criteria for any town applying to be a recipient of a Carnegie grant to:

  • Demonstrate the need for a public library
  • Provide the building site
  • Provide 10 percent of the cost of the library's construction annually to support its operation
  • Use the building as a library only (building plans could not include other city or recreational facilities)

A vision for a new public library system

Photo of Andrew Carnegie reading a bookCarnegie's vision of a life filled with a free and lasting education led to the construction of hundreds of libraries around the world as well as many innovations in their functioning.

Carnegie public libraries, for instance, had open, rather than closed stacks, to provide a democratic approach to education. Closed stacks require a librarian's assistance. Open stacks readily available to the public, in contrast, encourage and enable people to browse and choose books for themselves.

Today Carnegie libraries are recognized for their functionality and their architectural beauty. They have come to represent both the principles of education and those of a man eternally dedicated to it.

Carnegie's legacy

"Only in popular education can man erect the structure of an enduring civilization." — Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie died on August 11, 1919, at the age of 84, from bronchial pneumonia.

Over the course of his life, he had contributed more than $350,000,000 to various educational causes around the world, and helped change both people's attitudes toward, and accessibility of, education, as well as the North American landscape. Although many of the Carnegie libraries have been renovated for alternative use or demolished, 63 of the original 111 Ontario libraries are still functioning as libraries.

The institutions and trusts he began in his lifetime continue to promote and enhance education and culture around the world. The ideas and causes he fostered and in which he was so heavily involved continue to thrive.