can libraries save America?
American libraries have shown an amazing ability to reinvent themselves — even as they work quietly and diligently to transform lives while bringing together and strengthening the communities they serve. But do we deserve them? Can we keep them? Andrew Carnegie’s visionary philanthropy points the way.
(…) Years later, Carnegie wrote that the “treasures of the world which books contain were opened to me at the right moment,” and he was determined to make free library services available to all who needed and wanted them. Beginning in 1886, he used his personal fortune to establish free public libraries throughout America, and by his death he had built over 1,600 libraries in the United States. His great interest was not in library buildings as such but in the opportunities that free circulating libraries afforded men and women — young, old, and in-between — for gaining knowledge and developing understanding. “Upon no foundation but that of popular education,” he asserted, “can man erect the structure of an enduring civilization.”
In The Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie proclaimed that “establish[ing] a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it” was the best way to spend money. Yet he did it in such a way that the public took ownership of their libraries; he paid for the physical building, but only if the community agreed to establish the library’s collections and cover its operational costs from the start. One could say that, in effect, these were the world’s first matching grants. For Carnegie, no city and no country could sustain progress without a great public library — not just as a font of knowledge for scholars, but as a creation for and of the people, free and open to all. For Carnegie it was no exaggeration to say that the public library “outranks any other one thing that a community can do to help its people.” (…)
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