When, in 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his steel business and pocketed $250 million (approximately $9 billion today), he became the richest man in the world. Even before that most lucrative transaction, he was one of the wealthiest men around. Like many self-made men, Carnegie, despite his own dirt-poor upbringing in Scotland, had little sympathy for the workers who toiled for his enterprises. Labour was just another cost, and that cost had to be kept as low as possible. If that meant cutting wages, breaking strikes, and sacking the men who took part in them, well, that was just business.
That tough attitude didn’t stop Carnegie from becoming the greatest philanthropist of his age. ‘The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced,’ he said, while remaining unapologetic about his treatment of his employees. Like many self-educated men, Carnegie set a high value on public libraries.
After his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, the thirteen-year-old Carnegie got a job as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. His quest for self-improvement began a few years later. He wanted to join a local library but couldn’t afford the $2 subscription fee. When he wrote to the library administrator explaining his circumstances, he got short shrift. So he wrote a letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper describing his plight. The letter was published and the library administrator caved in. Thereafter, the library was opened to working men.
So when he began his philanthropic activities, libraries were at the top of his list. Between 1883 and 1929, 2,509 were built all over the world with Carnegie money, most of them in the US but 660 of them in the UK. The money was for the building alone. Local authorities had to stump up for staff, maintenance, and the books themselves. This approach accorded with Carnegie’s view that ’in bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.’
The Carnegie libraries are still standing all over Britain. Indeed, almost every town of a decent size seems to have one. The buildings are very much of their time, grand embodiments of a civic pride that is disappearing from our country. I don’t know how much control Carnegie and his advisors exercised over the design of the libraries, but each one I’ve seen is different.
The picture at the top of this post is the Carnegie library in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Councillor Joseph Barlow, Chairman of the Urban District Council, got the money from Carnegie to build a library to commemorate the accession of Edward VII. It was designed by local architects, Scorer and Gamble, and completed in 1905. The listing on the Historic England website describes it as ‘a handsome and well composed building in the late Tudor style, characterised by a lively skyline and expansive mullioned and transomed windows’. I especially like the copper (now green) lantern with its weather vane. I doubt Carnegie got to see many of the libraries built with his money, but I think he would have approved of this beauty.