Saturday, January 10, 2004

Deconstructing the Philanthropic Library: The Sociological Reasons Behind Andrew Carnegie's Millions to Libraries

Deconstructing the Philanthropic Library: The Sociological Reasons Behind Andrew Carnegie's Millions to Libraries This is an excellent essay on Andrew Carnegie by librarian Michael Lorenzen. It is well worth the read.

From the site:

Educational institutions are often founded on and influenced by philanthropy. One of the strongest examples of this is the founding of over two thousand Carnegie Libraries in Europe, the United States, and the English speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Just like other educational institutions, the Carnegie Libraries were influenced heavily by the world around them. The strongest influence came from the source of the money, Andrew Carnegie, who had very strong feelings as to why these libraries were needed including his belief in an America that was a meritocracy and that his libraries would benefit immigrants.


Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant to the United States in the mid-19th Century. He was poor and was working full-time at the age of twelve. Despite his poor background and the discrimination he faced as an immigrant, he built an industrial empire based on the manufacturing of steel and when he sold his business empire and retired he was worth almost an estimated 400 million dollars. His rags to riches story led him to believe that America was a meritocractic society where anyone who worked hard and smart with a little luck could be successful.

Andrew Carnegie believed strongly in what he called the "Gospel of Wealth." Macleod (1968) summarized this in his book on Carnegie Libraries in Wisconsin. Basically, Carnegie believed that accumulation of wealth by a few was inevitable in any capitalistic society. Further, this concentration of wealth in the hands of a few was necessary for democracy and freedom to prevail and for the whole of society to be prosperous. Any attempt to circumvent this system would lead to anarchy and tyranny. However, Carnegie believed that those who did make it had a moral obligation to give their fortune away before they died to benefit society. In particular, this money was to be spent in a way that did not encourage laziness (charities that only dealt with symptoms and not the problem) but that created institutions that made opportunities for anyone with the right character to be successful and rich.

This philosophy of Carnegie was translated into a wide variety of areas. He gave away $333 million of his fortune on various activities including an attempt to simplify spelling, helping churches, endowing (and in some cases founding) institutions of higher education, and supporting the arts. However, his largest gifts were reserved for libraries. Carnegie gave money to build 2,509 libraries throughout the English speaking world including the British Isles, Australia, and New Zealand. Of these libraries, 1,679 of them were built in the United States and in American possessions that were later incorporated into America proper (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). He spent over $55 million on libraries alone and he is often referred to as the "Patron Saint of Libraries." (Bobinski, 1969)

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