Do We Need a New Andrew Carnegie?

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By Theodore Christopher Marceau – Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Andrew Carnegie was a steel and rail baron of the nineteenth century who made a fortune, and then spent the last two decades of his life giving much of it away. All told, he gave away approximately $350 million (the equivalent of $65 billion) in today’s dollars. Some say he was atoning for the ruthless practices involved in acquiring his fortune. He was a pioneer in developing the vertically integrated industry in which rail, coal, steel, and steamship lines controlled every aspect of production.

After selling his industries to what became U.S. Steel in 1901, he turned his focus to giving away his fortune. One of his major investments was libraries. His idea was to give his resources so that the poor could help themselves, and libraries were a key component of his philanthropic strategy. His first library was built in Dumferline, Scotland in 1883. He built libraries in Great Britain, Canada, other English speaking countries and in the United States. The first in the U.S. was in nearby Braddock, Pennsylvania, opened in 1888.

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Source unknown, widely attributed to Andrew Carnegie

According to Wikipedia, by 1923, 1419 grants totaling $45,865,440.10 resulted in the building of 1647 libraries. An NPR story puts the total at $60 million building 1689 libraries. Worldwide, his grants funded construction of over 3,000 libraries. In addition, he invested in educational institutions, including Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) and Tuskegee Institute (a historically Black college). He also invested in pension funds for his workers and in the arts.

Many of the library buildings constructed with his grants are still standing, often among the distinguished architectural structures in their towns, whether still in use as libraries or not.

So what is the situation today? Libraries offer a tremendous array to Carnegie’s working man or women and their children. In addition to books, a variety of digital resources are available for lending, children’s programs, tutoring programs and a variety of adult education programs are offered in many communities that assist with job skills and job hunting. Computer resources provide online access for those who cannot afford these or have only limited access. Most libraries are providing ever-growing numbers of people with greater numbers of services, often at fairly static funding levels, making them among the most efficient organizations.

The funding picture of libraries is primarily through state funding and local property tax levies. Ohio, where I live recently raised the percentage of its state budget going to libraries from 1.68 to 1.7 percent. This money provides roughly half of library funding overall. The reality though is that while some municipalities invest heavily in their libraries, others, often in cash-strapped rural settings, live almost entirely on state funding. The good news is that there is a great return on investment in library funding. A recent study found that $1 invested in Ohio libraries returned nearly $5 in economic value and Ohio has the highest per capita library use in the country. Federal funding for the Museum and Libraries Services was recently renewed and increased by $11 million, despite Trump administration opposition.

So while there is some good news on the U.S. funding front, many small libraries are struggling, and I hear of some that have closed, leaving “library deserts” in some areas of the country. The situation is worse in the United Kingdom, where nearly 130 libraries closed this past year and many are being run by volunteer staff. Certainly, the situation is more dire yet in other parts of the world.

Could philanthropists play a bigger part? For twenty years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did that, but announced in 2018 that they are winding down their program after funding free internet access in U.S. libraries, and greater technology access throughout the world. While some places like Harvard have huge endowments of $36 billion. A Washington Post article reports that by contrast there are only several billion dollars nationally in library endowments. The case has been made for a National Library Endowment with a goal of $20 billion. How could it happen? The Post article notes that the top 400 wealthiest in this country are worth $2.4 trillion. In other words, less than one percent of this wealth could fully endow this fund at $20 billion, and continue to build it in succeeding years. This could mean hiring librarians in cash strapped urban systems, expanding digital access, developing school libraries, and enhanced technology for research libraries. Mackenzie Bezos has committed a portion of her Amazon fortune to The Giving Pledge, organized by Warren Buffett to encourage just this kind of philanthropy.  Wouldn’t it be a bit ironic if she gave this toward a library endowment? Stranger things have happened.

Libraries continue to provide huge benefits to their communities and serve as “springs in the desert.” Who will take up the mantle of Andrew Carnegie in this generation? One hopes the day may come where alongside Carnegie’s name, we see those of Zuckerberg, Buffett, Bezos, Brin, Ellison, Bloomberg, Winfrey, and Cuban. All it would take is for these folks to put their heads–and their money–together and decide to make it happen. The whole country would be richer for it.

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