Carnegie Libraries

By Margaret Blair in Community, People, Poetry & Literature

Recently, two Carnegie libraries in our area, Harriston and Mt. Forest, have been renovated and expanded, with a third, Palmerston, on its way. Of the 125 such libraries in Canada, 111 were built in Ontario. As well as Harriston, Mt. Forest, and Palmerston, the Listowel, Lucknow and Teeswater libraries are also Carnegies. They are named after Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American business man who by the time he died in 1919 had financed over 2,500 libraries, most of them in North America and Britain.
Who was Andrew Carnegie – and why was he so interested in setting up libraries with free access for the general public?
This exceptional man was born in 1835 at Dunfermline, Scotland. His father, William (Will), was a poor weaver, according to his son, “a most lovable man… not a man of the world, and a man all over for heaven.” Will Carnegie helped start the Tradesman’s Subscription Library in Dunfermline and instilled in his son a love of learning, of debate, and figures (leading to Andrew’s knowledge of accounting). Mother Margaret (Mag) was made of sterner stuff. She helped put food on the family table by binding shoes for local master shoemakers, and encouraged her son in all his entrepreneurial ambitions. Both these influences were crucial to Andrew Carnegie’s future success.
After immigrating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the age of 13, he soon found a job, deliberately lost his Scottish accent and climbed the ladder in increasingly responsible positions. On his way up, at the age of 17, Andrew Carnegie fought successfully for the right of working boys like himself to obtain books free from the Anderson subscription library in Pittsburgh.
By the time he was 35, this diminutive man, who always sought to disguise his lack of height by wearing high-heeled boots and top hats in public, was living in grand style with his mother in New York, (father Will having died when his son was 20). From New York, Andrew Carnegie ran his Homestead steel mills in Pittsburgh through managers such as his brother Tom, Henry Clay Frick and Charles Schwab, always keeping a firm eye on the accounting records.
It was through his comparative analysis of industry financial statistics that Carnegie realised that his workers were earning more than others in the steel industry and working less (eight hours a day instead of twelve). He decided that with better financial management, the Carnegie mills could be even more profitable.
The imposition of lower wages and longer working hours led to a round of strikes – broken by the managers. Carnegie counselled his workers that if they wanted improved conditions, they must work through their (Amalgamated) union to obtain them, but for the industry as a whole. Andrew Carnegie had successfully imposed the working standards of the other “robber barons” of his time and in so doing had increased his already huge profits.
Carnegie advised his workers to take an interest in reading and relaxing games in their (now reduced) spare time. He turned a blind eye to the terrible living conditions of his now poorer workers and to the fact that working 12 hours a day seven days a week gave them little time or energy for leisure pursuits. (These were different times from the – admittedly difficult – ones he had himself encountered coming to America.) It is no surprise that the working masses of Pittsburgh urged their local authority not to request or accept the gift of a library from such a man. However, the city politicians answered that Carnegie had the money, they didn’t, and that they may as well get back some of it.
The libraries were not a completely free gift. Cities had to prove need, donate a building site, assign annual taxes to support the library, and promise to provide the library’s services absolutely free to their citizens. Library members were to have access to browse in the stacks and choose books.
As time went by, Andrew Carnegie made the acquaintance of Louise Whitfield, a young woman of old and respectable New York lineage. They married in 1886 after the death of his mother. At the dinner parties Louise hosted, Andrew displayed his scintillating conversational skills. He loved his wife too dearly to go ahead with having a family, as it was common in those days for a woman to die in childbirth. However, Louise pined for a child, and in March 1897, their much loved daughter, named Margaret after Andrew’s mother, was born when Andrew was 62 and Louise just turning 40.
This accumulation of wealth led to the question of how to “return the profits to the community from which they came” – as Carnegie put it. Early in his career, Andrew Carnegie had decided to give away, during his lifetime and in a responsible way, all the money he made, estimated by Forbes magazine, in 2007 dollars, at almost $300 billion by the height of his success. Therefore, before the wedding, Louise signed a prenuptial agreement giving her an annual income of $3 million in today’s dollars, and renouncing any claim on her husband’s larger estate, which she would help him to disburse. Later, the giving away of the Carnegie fortune was entrusted to another Scot, Carnegie’s Secretary James Bertram, who dispensed money mainly for educational and scientific enterprises. Bertram was buried with his wife in her birthplace, Seaforth, Ontario.
By the end of his life, Andrew Carnegie, who by now mixed with all the most powerful world leaders, became obsessed with bringing about world peace. He died of pneumonia in 1919, disappointed that this initiative had obviously failed. Andrew Carnegie was not accustomed to failing at anything.
There was another major focus for his philanthropy: providing organs for churches. This was also based on Andrew Carnegie’s early experience – but that is another story.
A recent biography of Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw is available at the Harriston Carnegie library.