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Andrew Carnegie, tiny titan of libraries

November 19, 2008 |  9:24 am

Andrewcarnegie_1118

Andrew Carnegie was a titan of the steel industry, one of the country's grand robber barons. But as the 19th century drew to a close, he began turning his attention to good works. After selling Carnegie Steel to JP Morgan in 1901 -- bringing him $4.5 billion in today's dollars -- Andrew Carnegie focused entirely on his philanthropy.

He began with a library.

Today we'd probably call it a cultural center. It did house a book-filled library, but it also had a music hall, an art gallery and a natural history museum. It opened in 1895, before Carnegie had retired; in his biography "Andrew Carnegie," David Nasaw excerpts Carnegie's speech at the opening celebration:

He asked now to be judged by the uses to which he put his money: "the enlightenment and joys of the mind... the things of the spirit... all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light...If Library, Hall, Gallery or Museum, be not popular and attract the manual toilers, and benefit them, it will have failed in its mission."

The way he talks about "the toilers" hardly sounds enlightened, but when he gave this speech, the U.S. didn't have a tradition of free public lending libraries. In my hometown, the local public library was housed in a historic 18th-century building, so I always assumed public libraries were something America's early colonists had established. Not so. In fact, Carnegie's idea that "the toilers" should be able to enlighten their minds by borrowing books for free was something that took hold only after he and his foundation established public libraries in close to 2,000 communities nationwide. Because he was interested in sustainability (and perhaps because he wasn't interested in financing them forever), Carnegie libraries were only built in places where the local communities agreed to maintain them, as free libraries, with tax dollars.

Now, free public libraries are so standard in our communities that they seem like a right, not a privilege. But just 100 years ago, it would have been hard to find one.

The photo above comes from the Library of Congress, which serves both as the research institution for Congress and a library for the rest of us. It's from the Bain News Service collection, which the LOC has been posting on Flickr, where it invites people to add tags to help categorize this and other public domain collections.

What's unusual about this photo -- other than looking a little odd where it was enhanced with black paint or ink to be used for print -- is that it shows how tiny Andrew Carnegie was. As monumental as he was in business, Carnegie, second from right, was a really little guy, not quite five feet tall. He took pains to not let this be widely known; he "never allowed himself to be photographed standing" Nasaw writes, without seeking higher ground, and typically wore "high-heeled boots" and a "variety of hats" to appear taller. This picture shows how much smaller he was than his wife, Louise, at far left, and his daughter Margaret, sitting next to her.

Next Tuesday will be the 173rd anniversary of Andrew Carnegie's birth. To remember him, you might take a book out of your local library. Or wear a top hat.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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