Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Deconstructing the Philanthropic Library: The Sociological Reasons Behind Andrew Carnegie's Millions to Libraries

Deconstructing the Philanthropic Library: The Sociological Reasons Behind Andrew Carnegie's Millions to Libraries

Michael Lorenzen

(This article originally appeared in Illinois Libraries 81(2), (1999), 75-78.)

Educational institutions are often founded on and influenced by philanthropy. One of the strongest examples of this is the founding of over two thousand Carnegie Libraries in Europe, the United States, and the English speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Just like other educational institutions, the Carnegie Libraries were influenced heavily by the world around them. The strongest influence came from the source of the money, Andrew Carnegie, who had very strong feelings as to why these libraries were needed including his belief in an America that was a meritocracy and that his libraries would benefit immigrants.


Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant to the United States in the mid-19th Century. He was poor and was working full-time at the age of twelve. Despite his poor background and the discrimination he faced as an immigrant, he built an industrial empire based on the manufacturing of steel and when he sold his business empire and retired he was worth almost an estimated 400 million dollars. His rags to riches story led him to believe that America was a meritocractic society where anyone who worked hard and smart with a little luck could be successful.

Andrew Carnegie believed strongly in what he called the "Gospel of Wealth." Macleod (1968) summarized this in his book on Carnegie Libraries in Wisconsin. Basically, Carnegie believed that accumulation of wealth by a few was inevitable in any capitalistic society. Further, this concentration of wealth in the hands of a few was necessary for democracy and freedom to prevail and for the whole of society to be prosperous. Any attempt to circumvent this system would lead to anarchy and tyranny. However, Carnegie believed that those who did make it had a moral obligation to give their fortune away before they died to benefit society. In particular, this money was to be spent in a way that did not encourage laziness (charities that only dealt with symptoms and not the problem) but that created institutions that made opportunities for anyone with the right character to be successful and rich.

This philosophy of Carnegie was translated into a wide variety of areas. He gave away $333 million of his fortune on various activities including an attempt to simplify spelling, helping churches, endowing (and in some cases founding) institutions of higher education, and supporting the arts. However, his largest gifts were reserved for libraries. Carnegie gave money to build 2,509 libraries throughout the English speaking world including the British Isles, Australia, and New Zealand. Of these libraries, 1,679 of them were built in the United States and in American possessions that were later incorporated into America proper (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). He spent over $55 million on libraries alone and he is often referred to as the "Patron Saint of Libraries." (Bobinski, 1969)

Carnegie had two main reasons for donating money to the founding of libraries. First, he believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America. Anyone with the right inclination and desire could educate himself. Second, Carnegie believed that immigrants like himself needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America which the library allowed immigrants to do.

Carnegie indicated it was the first reason that was the most important to him. As a boy working a hard job with long hours, he had no access to education. However, a Colonel Anderson started a small library of 400 books which he lent on Saturday afternoons to local boys. This is how Carnegie educated himself. Wrote Carnegie (1920) of Colonel Anderson's library, "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..." (pp. 47) Further, Carnegie is quoted as saying, "In a public library men could at least share cultural opportunities on a basis of equality." (New York Times, Jan. 8, 1903, pp. 1) Through the library, all could educate themselves enough to share in America's richness if they so desired.

The second reason Carnegie invested a large portion of his fortune into libraries was the cultural education of immigrants. He believed immigrants would use the library like he had and the result would be a more homogeneous American people. Carnegie is quoted as saying by Macleod (1968), "Show me the man who speaks English, reads Shakespeare and Bobby Burns and I'll show you a man who has absorbed the American principles. He will most likely read also the Declaration of Independence and Washington's Farewell Address." (pp. 17)

It is only fair to add that many contemporaries of Andrew Carnegie found a third reason why Carnegie gave away his money. In essence, they believed Carnegie was an egotist who liked the attention giving money got him and that he relished having thousands of buildings named after him. According to Wall (1970), Mark Twain always addressed Carnegie as "Saint Andrew" in jest for this reason. Andrew Carnegie always referred to Mark Twain as "Saint Mark" in return. It is only fair to further note that regardless of any egotism on Carnegie's part, he did give away 90% of his fortune in his lifetime. Had he lived another decade, he probably would have given it all away. Carnegie at least had the courage of his convictions and did what he thought was morally right.


Although Andrew Carnegie would have never realized it, 20th Century educational and sociological theorists have categorized his rationale for building libraries as educational institutions into modern sociological reasons. Both of his major reasons, the meritocracy that benefited from libraries and the socialization of immigrants that libraries could aid in, have modern sociological theories that they fit within.

Carnegie's belief in an America that was a meritocracy fits solidly within the functional paradigm. Wrote Hurn (1985), "The functional paradigm argues that the reason why schooling is so much more important in modern society than in previous societies is that it performs two crucial functions. First, schooling represents an efficient and rational way of sorting and selecting talented people so that the most able and motivated attain the highest status positions. In other words, schools help create a society where effort and ability rather than family background determine a person's status." (pp. 46,47) Carnegie believed that the public library was an efficient and rational way that allowed those who were most able and motivated to educate themselves and allowed them then to attain high status positions regardless of their background. Institutions like the public library were important to Carnegie because they allowed the meritocractic nature of America to work. In Carnegie's mind, if an individual had access to a library but choose not to use it, then that individual was choosing a lower status position.

Labaree wrote about the meritocracy within the concept of democratic equality. Wrote Labaree (1996), "In addition to citizenship training and equal treatment, the goal of democratic equality has taken a third form, that is the pursuit of equal access...Equal access has come to mean that every American should have an equal opportunity to acquire an education at any educational level." (pp. 10) The Carnegie Libraries assured that those living in communities possessing them, every citizen who desired to educate themselves could indeed do so. Carnegie Libraries are in a very real sense a form of democratic equality.

Hurn (1985) further developed the concept of the meritocratic society in his exploration of the functional paradigm. Wrote Hurn, "In modern societies occupational roles are (and should be) achieved rather than ascribed. Contemporary intellectuals have long regarded the inheritance of occupational roles, and more broadly the inheritance of social status, as anathema. People believe high-status positions should be achieved on the basis of merit rather than passed on from parent to child. The children of the poor should have equal opportunity to achieve high status with more privileged children." (pp. 49) Without overly belaboring the point, this meritocracy was crucial to Carnegie. He had started as a worker and had achieved high status. Hence, he had to believe that his workers had the same opportunities he had had but were not as worthy. If the children of the workers had access to libraries, then Carnegie felt the more worthy of them would use the libraries to educate themselves and attain high status. Carnegie felt his philanthropy was helping to continue the meritocracy he believed already existed.

Carnegie's desire to socialize new immigrants is also addressed by the functional paradigm. Wrote Hurn (1985), "An educated citizenry is an informed citizenry, less likely to be manipulated by demagogues, and more likely to make responsible and informed political decisions and be actively involved in the political process. Education reduces intolerance and prejudice, and increases support for civil liberties; it is, in other words, an essential bulwark of a democratic society dedicated to freedom and justice." (pp. 51) Considering the union politics at the time which Carnegie heavily disliked, it is not hard to imagine how Carnegie saw new immigrants being educated. He believed that the education achieved via the library would make voters less likely to be manipulated by demagogues (union organizers) and make informed decisions at the ballot box. While Carnegie never stated as much, it is easy to infer from Carnegie's other writings and from his life that he believed library educated voters would tend to vote like he did. Regardless, Carnegie believed the process of education through the library would help immigrants adjust to America and become proper Americans.

Parsons wrote of the perceived value of socialization by the commitments education produced in students. He wrote (1964), "Commitments may be broken down into two components: commitments to the broad implementation of the broad values (emphasis in original) of society, and commitment to the performance of a specific type of role within the structure of society." (pp. 130) Immigrants and others learning in public libraries, reading the books Andrew Carnegie provided for them, would be exposed to the values of society. Carnegie felt that the immigrants in particular would take to these values.

This paper is about the sociological basis for why Carnegie founded thousands of libraries. As such, it is not necessary to examine in great depth where Carnegie's motivations are potentially wrong. However, since so much of Carnegie's motivations come from his belief in a meritocracy it is only appropriate to address criticism of the meritocracy.

Does an increase in education result in an increase in social position as Carnegie believed? Modern research tends to show that more universal educational attainment has not led to a more equal society in regards to equity in the distribution of high social class. Boudon (1986) defined this observation as, "Education influences status; hence one is entitled to expect that, when educational level becomes less narrowly related to orientation status, orientation status should influence achieved status to a lesser extent. This expectation does not seem to be confirmed by empirical data, however." (pp. 264) Hurn (1985) came to the same conclusion writing, "But what should happen, according to the functional paradigm, is that we should be able to observe some reduction in the ability of privileged parents to pass on their advantages to their children. The fact that we do not observe this suggests that contemporary U.S. society is not a great deal more meritocratic than several decades ago." (pp.59)

The world of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century was different than the modern time when Hurn and Boudon made their observations. Educational achievement was low throughout America. Having a high education was a greater benefit then than it is today since so few had it. It is reasonable to assume that those educating themselves in Carnegie Libraries at the time they were built would have had huge advantages over others who were less educated. Hence, Carnegie's vision would have worked to some extent at that time. Even in today's society, a well read person is in better shape than the less read person, even if both have the same low social status.


Andrew Carnegie had two main reasons for founding thousands of libraries around the world in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. First, Andrew Carnegie believed very strongly in the concept of America as a meritocracy due to his life experience. Second, Andrew Carnegie believed that public libraries were a good way to socialize immigrants into decent Americans. Modern sociological theory can be applied to Carnegie's rationales. Most of the cited theorists in this paper wrote about the functional paradigm of education which fits Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy nicely. Regardless of why Carnegie did what he did, his establishment of thousands of public libraries is the most important event in the history of American librarianship. Further, regardless of rationale, these Carnegie Libraries to this day have benefited in the education of millions of people.


Anonymous. (1903, Jan. 3). Carnegie does another New York Library. New York Times, pp. 1,2.

Bobinski, George S. (1969). Carnegie libraries: Their history and impact on American public library development. Chicago: American Library Association.

Boudon, Raymond. (1986). Education, social mobility, and sociological theory. In Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education edited by John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 261-274.

Carnegie, Andrew. (1915). The public library as social force. Wisconsin library bulletin 11, 182.

Carnegie, Andrew. (1920). The autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, popular edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hurn, Christopher J. (1985). The limits and possibilities of schooling: An introduction to the sociology of education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc. Chapter 2 ("Theories of schooling and society: The functional and conflict paradigms") and Chapter 3 ("Explanations of the expansion of schooling").

Labaree, David F. (1996). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.

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Parsons, Talcott. (1959). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. Harvard educational review 29(4), 297-318.

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Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Wresting money from the canny Scotsman: Melvil Dewey's designs on Carnegie's millions, 1902-1906. Libraries & Culture 31(2), 380-393.

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