NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Andrew Carnegie founded the company that became U.S. Steel. From humble beginnings as a Scottish immigrant, he would rise to become one of the richest men in the world at the time of his death in 1919.
In 1889, he inspired a wave of philanthropy, with his article “The Gospel of Wealth” which spread his view that the wealthy should use their money to improve society. Over the last two decades of his life he gave away almost 90 percent of his fortune.
He used his wealth to fund Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Carnegie Mellon University and many others. He placed a special emphasis on local libraries.
“Carnegie Libraries” are public libraries donated to towns built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie based on the “Carnegie formula”, certain required conditions accepted by the municipality to receive the donation.
Carnegie required the elected officials of the town to demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, pay to staff and maintain the library, draw from public funds to run the library-not use only private donations, annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and, provide free service to all.
“An endowed institution is liable to become the prey of a clique,” wrote Carnegie. ”The public ceases to take interest in it, or, rather, never acquires interest in it.”
By the time of his death there were 3,500 libraries in the United States, nearly half of them (1,679) built with construction grants paid by Carnegie. The first Carnegie library to open in the United States was in 1889 in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Most of the library buildings were unique, constructed in a number of styles, including Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Classical Revival and Spanish Colonial. The architecture was typically simple and formal, welcoming patrons to enter through a prominent doorway, nearly always accessed via a staircase. The entry staircase symbolized a person’s elevation by learning. Similarly, outside virtually every library was a lamppost or lantern meant as a symbol of enlightenment.
Carnegie assigned the decisions on where to build a library to James Bertram, the personal secretary of Andrew Carnegie from 1897-1914. Bertram also served the Carnegie Corporation of New York from its inception in 1911 as secretary and trustee until his death in 1934. In 1904 he married Janet Tod Ewing and produced one child, a daughter, Jean Ewing Bertram. The daughter married Mr. James L. Burke. The couple lived in New Rochelle.
Carnegie was inspired to fund libraries by Colonel James Anderson who opened his collection to his workers every Saturday. Andrew Carnegie borrowed books from Anderson’s personal library. Carnegie’s personal experience as an immigrant, who with help from others worked his way into a position of wealth, reinforced his belief in a society based on merit, where anyone who worked hard could become successful. This conviction was a major element of his philosophy of giving in general and of his libraries as its best-known expression.
To reduce operating costs, Carnegie created a then revolutionary open-shelf or self-service policy beginning with the Pittsburgh neighborhood branches that opened after the main branch. This streamlined process allowed open access to shelves by patrons. Carnegie’s architects designed the Pittsburgh neighborhood branches so that one librarian could oversee the entire operation.
While hundreds of the library buildings have become museums, community centers, office buildings, residences, or are otherwise used, more than half of those in the United States still serve their communities as libraries over a century after their construction, many in middle-to low-income neighborhoods. Carnegie libraries still form the nucleus of the New York Public Library system in New York City, with 31 of the original 39 buildings still in operation.
In 1910, New Rochelle recived a Carnegie grant of $60,000 to build a new library. The work was completed in 1914. New Rochelle’s Carnegie Library served as the city’s library until the current library opened on Lawtown Street in the late 1970s.
This article is based, in part, on the Wikipedia profile of Andrew Carnegie.