Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 11, 2010

Thanks, Mr. Carnegie

This is not a big story, although it is a small part of a big story. Libraries entered my life as I climbed the tall steps to a Neoclassical building at the corner of Main and Broadway in my home town. Although it was not a particularly massive building, the entrance was made to look impressive by being raised nearly a full story above street level and reached by those imposing stone steps. Unlike any other building in our rectilinear town, the library faced the intersection at a 45-degree angle, which gave it a commanding presence. Probably because of this, it managed to dominate the center of downtown, holding its own against the much larger Town Hall catty-corner from it, and the much more historic Golden Lamb Inn, a century older than the library and also larger, to the north across Main Street.

That a town which, when I was born, had a population well under 10,000 people, would have an impressive public library was the work of two forces of culture around the turn of the 20th Century: some “American Spirit” of self-improvement, and an initiative funded by a Scots immigrant-made-good, Andrew Carnegie.

Many of you reading this article have a personal acquaintance with this very same library. Since it’s National Library Week, it’s an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of free public libraries. Others of you almost certainly grew up in towns in America which also had Carnegie Libraries. Carnegie’s foundation has had an enormous impact on the tradition of free public libraries worldwide (Carnegie also funded libraries throughout the British Commonwealth and elsewhere).

The genesis of my hometown library was typical of all those Carnegie’s foundation funded: the local town or city had to prove the need for a library, provide half the funding and commit to operating the library with funds equal to ten per cent of the original cost of construction. My library opened in 1908. By then, Carnegie had been building libraries for 25 years, ultimately building about 2,500 of them until the program closed in 1929.

If you don’t think you grew up getting your first library card and checking out that first exciting book from a Carnegie, you might think again. Even the mighty New York City library system and other big-city establishments started life as Carnegie libraries. Here’s an opportunity: whenever you’re on the road in some town in America (or England or Scotland or Ireland or Canada) and you get into the old center of town, look around. If there’s some particularly iconic building downtown that LOOKS like it might’ve been a library, it probably was, even if now it serves as an arts center or some other public function. You’ll spot them: a little eccentric in their architecture, but they were libraries. They were a sign of the times. The rapidly industrializing world had that “self-help,” “self-improvement” ethos. Carnegie certainly didn’t invent libraries; they had been around for a couple of thousand years. But the sheer wealth required to accumulate and house printed volumes had long been the privilege of churches, governments, universities and wealthy individuals. As wealth and the drive to acquire knowledge accumulated during the 18th and 19th Centuries, social clubs, trade groups and various municipalities established lending libraries. Carnegie himself grew up with lending privileges from just such a library which his father had helped establish in Scotland. Carnegie’s vision in 1883 was radical: fund the establishment of public libraries on a vast scale. He and his foundation succeeded.

Mr. Carnegie probably did not intend one of the most important corollaries of this broad program of library-building: the creation of a body of professionally trained librarians, now staffing public libraries around the world. They make a library more than a collection of books, CDs, DVDs and magazines. They provide not just information about what’s on the shelves, but knowledge about how to find and use that information. They have also helped libraries transform themselves in response to the proliferation of media and the ubiquity of access to information media that now inundates us. Certainly, one can Google, one can Bing, one can cruise YouTube and Wikipedia and ten thousand other sources, but it’s not always easy to really find what you’re seeking. Take, for instance, the search that gave some poor seeker the URL of this blog: “how do you say ‘whose’ in French?” A librarian would have led them to a dictionary. Seems obvious, but the obvious is not always easy if one doesn’t have access to a French dictionary. Libraries have them, in print, on CD, and online, and librarians know how to access them. That’s the difference between information and knowledge. Carnegie’s foundation helped establish and institutionalize that level of knowledge in a profession accessible to the general public.

It’s up to us now. Mr. Carnegie’s work is done. He helped get the buildings erected and the first volumes of the collections assembled, but only we can carry on. The next time the local tax levy or bond issue comes up, vote with Mr. Carnegie; approve the library funding. Another generation will thank you.

More than three years after this post, I wrote about visiting a Carnegie Library in New Mexico, and offered a somewhat less glowing opinion of Mr. Carnegie’s non-library activities at http://wp.me/pH6ZJ-1YV

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