“Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.” ~~~Andrew Carnegie
Woodbine, Iowa has a really cool public library. They loan cake pans, costumes, hiking backpack kits, a telescope, and camping passes for nearby parks. They celebrate National Popcorn Day, National Hot Chocolate Day, and of course, National Chocolate Cake Day, which they commemorate with a chocolate cake contest. They have a coffee bar, book clubs, and needlework groups. Oh, yeah, almost forgot to mention that they also loan books. The librarians at Woodbine Carnegie Library are wildly enthusiastic and creative in their efforts to bring people into the library. Their zeal would thrill Andrew Carnegie.
The “Prince of Steel,” Andrew Carnegie, wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born into a poor Scottish family in 1835 and immigrated to the US at the age of thirteen with his family. Unable to attend school as a teenager because he had to work, Carnegie educated himself by borrowing books from a wealthy Pennsylvania man who opened his private library to the local teens who were in a similar predicament. This instilled a love of learning and an appreciation for the value of an education in young Andrew. Carnegie praised Colonel Anderson, the retired merchant who opened his library to local boys in this way:
“This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what he did for me and my companions. It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community.”
Dunfermline, Scotland, Carnegie’s birthplace, was the site of the first library endowed by the steel giant in the 1880s. After he sold his business to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for $480 million, he began endowing libraries in earnest. He believed that the communities needed to have some skin in the game, so they needed to commit to investing in the salaries, books, and upkeep of the libraries. He eventually endowed close to 1,700 libraries across the US. The Beaufort library is one of fourteen in the state of South Carolina that obtained funding from the Carnegie Corporation.
Ironically, a cost-saving measure ended up being a great way to get people to browse the library. Originally, libraries kept their books out of reach of the patrons. (One reason was to prevent theft.) The patron had to request a book and the librarian would go back in the stacks, find the book and bring it to the desk, so more librarians were needed. Designing the libraries so that patrons could search the stacks themselves saved librarians time and meant the libraries could possibly get by with less employees, but that necessitated positioning the librarians’ desks so that it would be difficult to walk out with stolen books. Once all that was ironed out, it became obvious that people browsed more freely and this stimulated their interest in all sorts of subjects. Anyone who has ever walked into a library can attest to this.
What a shocker it was to discover that Suva, Fiji has an Carnegie library! Although I was familiar with his outreach in the US, I was unaware that Carnegie had expanded his horizons and began endowing libraries all over the world. Actually, he gave the seed money for over 800 libraries outside the US. You can find Carnegie libraries in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Canada, England, South Africa, the Caribbean, and right here in the South Pacific on the island of Fiji. Andrew Carnegie is truly the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”
Carnegie was not without critics. Many people believe that he should have paid his workers better instead of funding all of his philanthropic projects. I don’t particularly care to get into that argument, but it is undeniable that he has reached an inestimable number of people through his libraries. And Woodbine Carnegie Library proves that libraries can be so much more than places where people are told to “shush!”