Andrew Carnegie altered the landscape of America. His steel was utilized to construct railroads, bridges and buildings. And his namesake libraries brought a world of books to many towns and opened a broader world to those who read.
When Andrew began thinking of what to do with the vast wealth he had accumulated, his thoughts turned to the libraries that had given him his self-education and helped make him the man he became. He decided that to give that same opportunities to others was the best use of his money.
He began by funding libraries in the two locations he had grown up in: Dunfermline, Scotland, and the Allegheny/Pittsburgh area in Pennsylvania. The first of the Carnegie libraries was the one in Dunfermline and it opened in 1883.
The first library he commissioned in the U.S. was at Allegheny, Pennsylvania. It opened in 1890, but although it was the first one he commissioned, a second one in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was the first to open in the states in 1889.
In 1892, he granted the funds for a library in Fairfield, Iowa, the first outside Pennsylvania. By 1899, his Carnegie Libraries were springing up across the nation.
Because of segregation, black people were not allowed to use libraries, so Andrew also funded libraries strictly for them. He founded Colored Carnegie Libraries in Houston, Texas, and Savannah, Georgia, among other cities.
Andrew set up his library grants so that small towns could receive $10,000 to build a library, which was a substantial amount in those days. In order to receive that grant, the town’s elected officials had to demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, pay to staff and maintain the library by committing public funds for that purpose in the amount of 10 percent of the construction cost per year and to provide free access to its patrons.
When Andrew began funding library construction, the policy of existing U.S. libraries was to operate with “closed stacks,” which meant that patrons requested a book from a staff member and that person would bring the book from the off-limit shelves of books. No browsing allowed.
The first five libraries he funded operated in this fashion, but Andrew soon realized this required more staff, so he came up with an “open stacks” form of operation where patrons could browse the collection of the library and decide which books they wanted to check out. He was then able to have the libraries he funded designed so that just one librarian could staff the library.
This new policy caught on quickly and soon most other public libraries were adopting this form of operating system.
In Missouri, the earliest Carnegie Library was built in 1899 and the last one in 1921. His donations for the 35 Carnegie Libraries in Missouri totaled over $1.5 million during that 22-year period.
The Carnegie Library at Bolivar was constructed in 1915 with a grant from Andrew for $8,000. It was the first public library in Bolivar and remained a public library until 2000. The building now serves as the home of the Polk County Genealogical Society.
The Carnegie Library at Marshfield is claimed to be the one granted by Andrew to the smallest community west of the Mississippi to receive such a grant. It was constructed in 1911 with that $5,000 grant and operated as a public library until 1995. It now houses the Webster County Historical Museum.
At the turn of the last century, Springfield residents began negotiating with Andrew Carnegie to acquire funds for a library and he granted them $50,000.
They then raised $3,250 to purchase the site for the library and it was constructed and then opened in March of 1905. At the time it opened, Springfield’s Carnegie Library housed 700 books. That building still serves as a library today and is part of the Springfield/Greene County Library System.
By the time Andrew Carnegie died on Aug. 11, 1919, he had given away over $350 million, which would equate to over $80 billion in today’s dollars.
In addition to his libraries, he endowed the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust.
He contributed a substantial amount of money to construct the Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson in 1911 to study the planets and stars. He built and owned the famous Carnegie Hall in New York City. He was one of the contributors to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, and help Washington found the National Negro Business League.
Andrew also started the Carnegie Hero Fund for the United States and Canada to recognize deeds of heroism. In 1903, he contributed $1.5 million to build the Peace Palace at The Hague and in 1914 he founded the Church Peace Union comprised of world leaders in politics, academia and religion in the hopes of heading off World War I.
There are two towns in the U.S., one in Pennsylvania and one in Oklahoma that bear his last name. And in the United Kingdom, the Carnegie Medal for the best children’s literature published there bears his name.
Appropriately enough, considering his love of reading and writing, Andrew Carnegie was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.