Libraries Still Loved, a Century After Carnegie
Libraries Still Loved, a Century After Carnegie

Libraries are town squares, art galleries, windows to the larger world, temples of learning, story time palaces, and free Internet cafes. They are makeshift day care centers for the mentally ill, inefficient bureaucracies, and hunting grounds for perverts. They are near death! They are in a renaissance! Happy National Library Week!

When I lived in London in my youth, I was astonished to find few free libraries. Where I lived, you could subscribe and pay a fee in order to read what the librarian brought you from closed stacks. There was no walking in and browsing, no getting a card just because you lived nearby. The true free library was not in every community, as they are here.

2,800 Seeds

However, a European planted 2,800 seeds to make libraries the part of American culture that they are today. Of course I mean the born Scotsman and American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. His 1889 essay, “Wealth” explains why he devoted so much of his fortune to building and stocking 2,800 libraries. “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship,” he wrote.

In those pre-income tax days, income inequality was spectacular. Carnegie thought that was good. “It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so,” he wrote.

But he also thought that with power and wealth comes responsibility. He speaks of laissez faire capitalism with a nearly religious feeling. His way of disbursing his wealth for the larger good clearly owed a lot to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Today’s so-called 1 percenters leading extravagant lives would have offended him.

He thought rich people should live modestly, and provide modestly for their families. They should use the same wisdom and managerial skills that made them rich to benefit society. When he turned 65, after piling up his enormous fortune, he started using it for others.

Immigration was a big thing a century ago, and just as contentious as it is now. Creating public libraries had the goals of reaching out to those huddled masses longing to breathe free. It was meant to defuse any tendency they might have to bring anarchism and communism from the old countries. It was meant to help them become full, constructive participants in civic life.

Libraries still serve that purpose. Carnegie’s huge act of generosity does live long after him.

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