January 17, 2019

To me, A.C. is our patron saint of libraries


Would Carnegie weep to see what had happened to this great gift of his? Or would he grin and chalk it up to progress?

Would Andrew Carnegie weep to see what has happened to this great gift of his to the people of Oxnard? Or would he grin and chalk it up to progress?

By John Guy LaPlante

Oxnard, California — I just visited the nice small art museum here. It’s called the Carnegie Art Museum.  It’s a gorgeous building with beautiful Greek columns…Corinthian, I believe.

Right away I guessed it used to be the Carnegie Public Library, and I was right.

Carnegie became a titan of industry but didn't stop there. His greatest achievement was still to come.

Carnegie became a titan of industry but didn’t stop there. His greatest achievement was still to come.

Oxnard has a new and bigger library nearby but it is not called the Carnegie. What a shame!  I feel sad about it. It was named for Andrew Carnegie because he provided the money for it. It’s that library which many years later made the city’s bigger one possible. And he did that same wonderful in communities big and small across the country.

But how many remember Andrew Carnegie? He was famous back in his day and the following few decades. Not many any more.  I do. And you probably do if you’re an older person and enjoy libraries.. But very few in the younger generation do…unless they’re history buffs. Very unfortunate. Because Carnegie did so, so much for public libraries.

Thinking about Andrew Carnegie today, I am reminded of Bill Gates–the Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, of course.

For two reasons.  Both were preeminent industrialists who started from scratch and made history two ways. First, for what they accomplished as businessmen. Andrew Carnegie in developing the steel industry and Gates in ushering in the computer age.

Second, for the good they did later in life for society as a whole–meaning lots and lots of people.  A lot of people who become very wealthy use their wealth to live it up–you know, retire to a life of luxury and loafing. That’s okay.

Carnegie used a huge portion of his enormous fortune to do good by making life better for countless people. And Gates is doing the same thing through his foundation.  It makes me wonder whether he got the idea from Carnegie.

Carnegie not only provided the cash. He worked hard to make his philanthropy successful—as hard as he did to make the money. And the same is true of Gates, it seems to me.

But it’s not on Bill Gates that I’m dwelling today.  Just about every person who enjoys reading, or watches TV news,  knows about him. We are familiar with the spectacular work he is doing as a philanthropist.

It’s Andrew Carnegie that I want to talk about.  If you do know about him, stick with me nevertheless, please. You may learn some interesting new things that will flesh him out.

His business was making steel, and he made tons and tons of it. He became the world’s champion steel maker. He did that by building and operating steel plants in numerous cities, but especially in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He turned it into one of our mightiest cities–in fact, the steel capital of the USA.

And he made what some say was the biggest fortune of any man up to that time.  But it’s because of how he spent a lot of that money that history remembers him, and with deeper reason.

He got a new idea.  A big idea. He grew up in a family that loved books. And he became a great reader himself.

His idea was to build libraries–public libraries open to anybody and everybody! That would be free!

Today we expect public libraries to be free. In fact, we take that for granted. But do you realize what a stupendous and extraordinary concept that was back then?

Sure, there were libraries, but they were private libraries–clubs, sort of, that were supported by members who paid dues for the pleasure of having access to lots of good books. Which meant that you had to be fairly well off to belong. Ben Franklin started one in Philadelphia, our country’s first. Wealthy Bostonians did the same thing with their Athenaeum. So did wealthy people in other cities.

Well, Carnegie built one library, then another, then dozens and dozens.  And he kept at it for nearly 30 years. Between 1891 and 1920 he handed out the cash to build some 2,400 libraries. The exact number is not clear.

And remember, the USA back then was not our great big USA of 50 states today.

Oxnard’s library, built in 1907 with those magnificent Grecian columns, was one of them.  Can you imagine how proud and happy that must have made the book-loving citizens of Oxnard back then? And how it must have encouraged many others who never thought of reading books to develop a passion for that?

He put up $12.000 for that library. That covered the cost of building it. It would be staggeringly more if he did it today.

And it was his typical deal. It would be up to local businessmen to come up with the money to furnish the library and stock it with books. A lot of communities jumped at the chance. “Count us in!” said one community after another. And that’s how he funded 144 libraries in California alone.

And this idea of his gave work to many architects and contractors and suppliers, plus countless workmen, all while greatly expanding the market for books–superb news for authors and publishers and printers, of course.

Today our leaders in Washington speak of stimulus programs to boost our economy.  Well, Carnegie’s program must have been the biggest stimulus program our country ever had up to that time, and a private one it was, mind you.

Yes, he read a lot, but he also wrote. Late in life he published an article entailed “Wealth.”  In it he argued that wealthy people should invest hefty amounts of their wealth in projects whose primary purpose would be to help society. That was a novel idle then. it got attention. Nowadays we recognize that by giving people an IRS write-off for charitable and philanthropic donations.


I myself was the beneficiary of Carnegie’s vision and generosity. I was only 12 or 13, as I remember it, when my Maman took me on a trolley car to downtown Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Then she walked me up the stone steps and through the beautiful doors of our  public library and got me my very first library card.

That’s how I fell in love with libraries. I didn’t even know what a library was.  I’ve never been without a library card since then. And I’ve enjoyed hundreds of libraries. I am not exaggerating.  Many of them Carnegie libraries. I  consider the public library–as he conceived it — the most important building in any community. After the food supermarket, to be sure. We do have to satisfy our stomach before we can our mind.

Without Andrew Carnegie, I’m not sure I would ever have discovered the joy of books and reading.

Well,  if today you, too, consider yourself rich in having a public library card in your wallet, thank Andrew Carnegie. To me he is the patron saint of American libraries.  I suspect that he was a patron saint of libraries all around the world–by his inspiration, I mean.

More than a century has passed since he did all that.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a Centennial Celebration in his honor? A first step would be to publish a Centennial Stamp with his image. To be followed with commemorative ceremonies in our thousands of public libraries.  And then winding up with a huge fête in Washington, DC.

The idea has to be developed, of course, but that could be done by soliciting suggestions from anybody with a public library card.

Of course, it would be encouraging to have some cash to get this Centennial Celebration up and going.

Do you think we could get Bill Gates involved? I think he would be a natural!

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  1. Hi John~
    Interesting article on Andrew Carnegie. I didn’t know much about him or his connection with public libraries. You wondered how Carnegie would feel about the change with his library. If he was truly a philanthropist and lover of books, I hope that he would be extremely pleased that his ‘pet project’ years ago inspired a new and bigger library in Oxnard more than one hundred years later–because that would mean that his idea of public libraries took hold and thrived! A great success indeed! And at least the beautiful building that he put up funds to construct still bears his name.

  2. Lucie Fradet says:

    It’s a great idea!

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