The Rich Man’s Burden And How Andrew Carnegie Unloaded It

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Library giving, except for so large an undertaking as the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, quickly became a business, as efficient and standardized as the filling of orders for steel billets at Homestead or Duquesne. A town council would apply for a Carnegie Library, and Carnegie’s secretary, James Bertram, would acknowledge the request and inform the municipal government of the specifications to be met before the grant could be made. The town would first have to provide a site, if possible centrally located in the town. Then the governing board of the community would have to pledge an annual appropriation for books and maintenance that would amount to 10 per cent of the Carnegie gift. The size of Carnegie’s gift was based upon the population of the town, usually two dollars per capita, which worked very well indeed for cities from twenty-five thousand to one hundred thousand in population. In the latter instance, for example, Carnegie would give two hundred thousand dollars for the building, and the city would pledge twenty thousand dollars a year for maintenance. But in many of the very small villages that also received gifts of libraries, the annual amount pledged in order to receive the gift might be as low as two hundred dollars a year. In fact, the only major criticism made by the Munn report of 1951 was that it would have been much better if smaH neighboring towns had “pooled their resources for a single library,” much as communities would later do in consolidating public-school systems. From the professional librarian’s point of view this is certainly a justifiable criticism, but who can say how many youths or lonely old people living in towns like Idaho Springs, Colorado, or Flora, Indiana, or Sanborn, Iowa, in those pre-radio-television days, found their only intellectual excitement or companionship in the Carnegie Free Public Library? In any event, Carnegie liked to think this was true. As he wrote to one applicant for a library building, “I believe that it outranks any other one thing that a community can do to benefit its people. It is the never failing spring in the desert.”

At first Carnegie made no attempt to provide building plans along with his grant of money for the building, leaving the architectural design to be determined by each locality. But there were so many bad buildings erected in these early years of library giving, and so many complaints from librarians who had to contend with functional problems, that Carnegie, and later the Carnegie Corporation of New York, sent out standard plans along with the monetary grant. What may have been gained in functional efficiency, however, was lost in architectural variety. Soon, in small towns all over America, there came to be an architectural style, popularly known as Carnegie Classical, that was as easily identifiable as that other standardized small-town architectural style known as Wesley Romanesque. A stranger in the community seldom had difficulty in spotting the Carnegie Library and the Methodist church, which in many towns confronted each other across the square.

The public generally believed that Carnegie insisted that his name be engraved above the front entrance of the libraries he gave. This was not true. But certainly he never objected to its being done, and, upon request, he would provide the library with a photograph of himself, which would hang in the place of honor just inside the main door. As he made clear to applicants, the one thing he did desire was “that there should be placed over the entrance to the Libraries I build a representation of the rays of a rising sun, and above ‘ LET THERE BE LIGHT ,’ and I hope you can have this on the building.” Not all communities complied with this request, however. Perhaps the Methodists across the way found it a bit presumptuous for a secular institution thus to arrogate to itself Jehovah’s own first command.

Carnegie frequently attended the dedication ceremonies of a major new library, particularly if it was in Britain, for there it usually meant that he would be granted the Freedom of the City, a medieval rite that he thoroughly enjoyed. He began collecting “Freedoms” in the early iSgo’s. The parchment scroll signifying this honor was encased in a small casket, and each town in Britain seemed to be trying to outdo its neighbor in the elaborateness of the casket design. Carnegie, who had never before been infected with the collector’s mania- neither stamps nor paintings nor rare old books ever having had an appeal for him—entered into this hobby with all the zest of the most fanatic philatelist. It was a proud day when he broke the previous record, held by Gladstone, of fourteen Freedoms. He really hit top form when he received six Freedoms in six days. They came so fast, in fact, that even the London Times, usually so reliable, became confused and on one occasion reported that Carnegie was to receive the Freedom of Bromley-by-Bow the following week. The citizens of that small London suburb were alarmed when they read their papers on that day, for it was the first they had known about it- no casket, no parchment, nothing was prepared. The Times hastily carried the next day one of its few retractions. It appeared that it was Bromley, Kent, that was prepared to honor Carnegie that week.