What is a Carnegie Library?


    Have you ever considered what life in small, rural, communities would be like without a public library?
    On Saturday, June 27, 2020, the Village of Paw Paw and Paw Paw District Library will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Paw Paw Public Library and the Paw Paw Carnegie Center.
    One hundred years ago, a public library was a novel undertaking.  Between 1893 and 1920, private funds from Andrew Carnegie’s personal fortune helped build 1,689 librar-ies across a rapidly expanding United States of America.  The Carnegie program for public libraries was the most influential philanthropic program in American history.
    Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835, in Dunfermline, Scot-land. Andrew’s father was a master weaver whose job was eliminated by invention of the steam loom.  In search of new opportunities, the Carnegie family emigrated to Allegheny, PA in 1848 when Andrew was 12.  
    Andrew found work as a “bobbin boy” in a textile mill.  A bobbin boy brought empty bobbins to women working at the looms, collecting the full bobbins of spun cotton or wool.  It was dangerous work.  Andrew was paid $1.20 a week.
    Throughout his life, Car-negie would search for information and the latest technology to further his own interests.   On Saturdays, Colonel James Andersen, who had served in the War of 1812, and was a pioneer in iron manufacturing, would open his private library to working boys.  Carnegie would later say that, “Colonel Anderson opened up the intellectual wealth of the world to me.”  Carnegie also joined local debating and self-improvement societies.
    At the age of 14, Carnegie became a telegraph messenger.  James Reid, a fellow Scot and the Superintendent of the telegraph office, took an interest in Andrew and taught him telegraphy.  At this time, telegraphy messages were being read from images pressed on a tape.  Andrew taught himself to read messages by sound alone, making the transmission of messages much faster.
    In 1853, Thomas A. Scott, at that time the Divisional Superintendent for the Pennsylvania Railroad, hired Andrew, 18 years old, as a telegraph operator at a salary of $4.00 a week.  Scott would become an important mentor to Carnegie.
    Thomas Scott became General Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1858, and in 1860 was promoted to Vice President of the railroad.  By 1874, Scott was the 4th President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and by 1882, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest railroad by traffic and revenue and the largest corporation in the world.  Carnegie rose through the ranks with Scott.  
    By 1861, at the age of 24, Carnegie was Superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  While traveling through his territory, Carnegie met T. T. Woodruff who had designs for a railroad sleeping car.  Carnegie advised Scott to meet with Woodruff.  Scott and Woodruff formed a company and the Pennsylvania Railroad ran the first sleeping car in the world.  Carnegie bought an interest in the company for $217.50 that would realize a profit of $200,000.
    In 1863, Carnegie formed the Keystone Bridge Co. and with his brother Thomas, organized the Cyclops Mill for the production of structural iron to be used for railroad bridges.  
    In 1865, these businesses were reorganized as the Union Iron Mills.  It was the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the westward expansion being driven by railroads which used steel rails worth $80 to $100 a ton. Carnegie left Pennsylvania Railroad to devote his energies to the ironworks trade.
    On a visit to England, Carnegie had observed the Besse-mer Steel process.  On returning to the United States, Car-negie introduced the Bessemer process to three large steel mills of which he was the principal owner, and in 1899, these mills were consolidated into the Carnegie Steel Company.   
    By the time Carnegie retired from Carnegie Steel in 1901, and sold off the assets to a consortium that would become the United States Steel Com-pany, he had become known as an American success story.  With the sale of Carnegie Steel, Carnegie, at age 66, was now also the richest man in the world.  
    An article about Carnegie appeared in the North American Review, in 1898.  In the article, Carnegie stated; “the day is not far distant when the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which were free for him to administer during life, will pass away ‘unwept, unhonored, and unsung’ no matter to what use he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him…”  
    In addition to believing that the wealthy had a moral obligation to give their fortunes away, Carnegie believed the institutions created from these gifts should be those that made opportunities for anyone with the right character to be successful.
    Carnegie believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America.  Anyone with the right inclination and desire could educate himself. Carnegie also believed that immigrants like himself, needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America, and that this knowledge was found in libraries.
    In 1893, Carnegie was approached by Senator James F. Wilson from Fairfield, Iowa, with a request for funds to build a public library in Fairfield.  Wilson was a personal friend of Carnegie.  Carnegie gave a $40,000 grant for the erection of an imposing public library building. It was the first time that Carnegie funded a library in a town where he had no direct personal ties or investments.
    When the American public became aware that there might be money available for building libraries, Carnegie became inundated with requests for funds.  Hundreds to thousands of letters began arriving daily.  Many just addressed to Andrew Carnegie and dropped in the post.  
    To qualify for the award, communities had to demonstrate the need for a library, provide the building site, and promise to support library services and maintenance with tax funds equal to 10% of the grant amount.  By requiring that communities provide their own building sites and tax support, Carnegie ensured civic stake in the success of their public library endeavor.  
    Carnegie appointed his personal secretary, James A. Bertram to administer the library grant program.  During the years 1893 to 1911, the grant amounts varied greatly. The largest award given for the construction of a single library was $500,000.    
    By 1911, Bertram had set up a standard structure for grants, and the average award was $10,000.  Bertram had learned that many local governments did not have the expertise to understand the economics of building a library.  
    Using Carnegie’s stipulations as the foundation, Bertram designed and oversaw the program’s day-to-day administration.  After receiving a grant request, Bertram responded with a questionnaire that requested information about the town’s population, its book collection, how the books were currently being housed, how much money was available from the community in taxes to support the library, whether a building site was available, and how much, if any, had already been raised for the project.
    Funds were released in thirds.  One third at groundbreaking, one third when the foundation was complete, and the last third when the building was certified completed by the architect and the library board.
    In 1910, at the age of 75, Carnegie had spent about one-third of the funds he had allocated for his library grant program.  Elihu Root, a lawyer, close personal friend, former Secretary of State and New York State Senator, suggested that Carnegie deposit the bulk of his remaining fortune in a philanthropic foundation.  
    In 1911, the Carnegie Corporation was charted to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding among the people of the United States.”  It was the first foundation of its kind and the largest philanthropic foundation ever devised, although it is still called the Carnegie Corporation, (not the Carnegie Foundation), to this day.
    The last Carnegie grant for a public library was given in 1919.  Andrew Carnegie died on August 11, 1919, at the age of 83.  After his retirement in 1910, he had given away $350 million (estimated at $65 billion in 2019 dollars), or about 90% of his personal fortune.
    The Carnegie Corporation currently supports education, democracy, international peace and security, and higher education and research in Africa.

(This is the first of a series about libraries, Paw Paw District Library, and Carnegie Community Center.  Most of the information in this article was abstracted from Carnegie Libraries Across America: a Public Legacy by Theodore Jones.  Martha Deming Maytnier,  Local History Librarian, Paw Paw District Library.)

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