The rise and resilience of our nation’s libraries is a unique phenomenon. Today, we so often take for granted the existence of free public libraries that their extraordinary history and significance is almost lost to us. Yet libraries, as we understand them, would not exist without Andrew Carnegie, the “Patron Saint of Libraries.” As this year marks the centennial of Carnegie’s death, I would like to reflect on the significance of his role in the development of the American public library system.
Libraries are the critical component in the free exchange of information, which lies at the heart of our democracy. They hold our nation’s heritage, the heritage of humanity, the record of its triumphs and failures, and of its intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements. American public libraries grant all people access to an ever-growing compendium of human knowledge. The library is the most natural, capable, and democratic institution for centering and connecting diverse communities of people not just in a physical space but also through the free and open provision of books. In both the actual and symbolic sense, the library is the guardian of freedom of thought and freedom of choice, standing as a bulwark for the public against manipulation by various demagogues. Hence, it constitutes the finest emblem of the First Amendment of our Constitution.
The birth of the free library
The earliest American libraries had their beginnings in New England with subscription libraries, whose collections were accessible only to subscribers who could afford the membership fee. Young Carnegie believed that he should not have to pay $2 a year to the local subscription library, which had formerly allowed “working boys” to borrow books for free. Writing an impassioned letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1853, six months short of his 18th birthday, he argued that he should be allowed to use the library without paying the membership fee. As his biographer David Nasaw notes, Carnegie was hardly a “boy” when he penned his indignant letter, but its publication in the Dispatch ultimately led the librarian to relent and waive the fee—but only for Carnegie.
In 1848 Massachusetts was the first state to pass an act authorizing one of its cities, Boston, to levy a tax for the establishment of a free public library service. Other states were soon to follow. By 1887, 25 states had passed laws enabling public libraries; but legislation alone was not enough to bring these libraries into existence. By 1896, there were still only 971 public libraries in the US holding 1,000 volumes or more.
For his posthumously published 1920 autobiography, 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 nearly 1,700 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 in Triumphant Democracy, “can man erect the structure of an enduring civilization.”
In a 1889 article titled “The Gospel of Wealth,” 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. 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.”
Carnegie’s philanthropy brought to the doorstep of citizens and immigrants alike not only the means for self-education and enlightenment but also the opportunity to understand the history and purpose of our nation’s democracy, to study English, to be taught new skills, to exercise the imagination, and to experience the pleasures of contemplation and solitude. The significance of his gifts of libraries to communities across the nation can scarcely be overestimated.
By ensuring that these living institutions were supported by not only the private sector but also by the government and the public, the library gained an unparalleled ability to transform itself. Today, there are an estimated 116,867 libraries in the United States alone. Furthermore, one of the internet’s greatest gifts has been to augment a critical function served by public libraries: the democratization of information. Technology has given each of us—for the first time in history—the means to consult our own virtual Library of Alexandria.
The virtual library
In one of his most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges told of a library that contains all books in all languages and the sum total of all human knowledge—past, present, and future. Much like the euphoria accompanying the growth of the internet in its early years, when this mythical library first appeared: “The first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist.… The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind’s hope.” Yet this library has no codification or system of organization. Babel librarians are instead “inquisitors,” searching the shelves relentlessly for the book that “is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books.” Many are driven mad by the inability to find what they seek. Babel becomes a place where knowledge is lost amid the chaos of irrationality. Much like the internet, Borges’s vast mythical library allows human beings to acquire knowledge—but ironically it also proves to be their greatest obstacle to obtaining wisdom.
Without organization, comparison, systematization, and a structure to information, and, most importantly, without professional librarians who are able to curate and understand that information, the blind lead the blind. First and foremost, librarians must be educated and educators. A jumble of books is not a library. Rather, a library requires organization and coherence—and a librarian. Libraries grow into halls of learning and places of refuge. Librarians are the caretakers of these havens, assisting with research, instilling a love of reading in young people, and supporting all who come through their doors looking for help.
Even a virtual Library of Alexandria will not make the need for brick-and-mortar libraries, printed books, archives, or special collections obsolete. Libraries, both physical and digital, allow us to see the internet as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. After all, the ability to carry around the entire corpus of Greek literature on one’s phone may be astonishing, but without actually reading it, a person might as well be carrying a ream of blank paper. Books require action, not just possession. They demand to be read.
Libraries seem uniquely adept at finding ways to adapt new technologies and media to fit their fundamental purposes. Public libraries provide critical and transformative services to individuals and communities that are often left behind, combating inequality by providing books, magazines, computers and laptops, classes, databases, job counseling, safe spaces to study, read quietly, or merely daydream, and myriad other materials and opportunities for those who often cannot afford these services.
One of the most essential ways that libraries maintain their role as our nation’s great equalizer is by providing free wireless internet access, which gives the public unfettered pathways to information and knowledge—and hence, to power: the power of autonomy, the power of enlightenment, and the power of self-improvement.
A station of hope
In the midst of a rapidly changing world, the American public library system shows remarkable endurance and creativity in addressing the many challenges made to its relevance and viability, thanks above all to the groundwork laid by the visionary philanthropy of Carnegie. Our nation’s libraries required the civic will and the sense of civic responsibility to—first—build them; we now need those same virtues to keep them flourishing.
More than most, Carnegie understood the value of libraries as the primary institution for the cultivation of the mind and the development of the community. The public library is many things: a place to study, a place where both children and adults are taught to read, a place where immigrants learn English, bridging the distance between the “old country” and their newly adopted home. The library is also a gathering place, a meeting place, a place to vote, a place where cultural events happen, where we come into contact with people of every race, every ethnicity, and every class.
To avoid the chaos of Babel, this country needs the free exchange of information and the fostering of community provided by its libraries. Ultimately, the public library is a station of hope, a link in the chain of being which unites knowledge and humanity, past and future. Borges imagined paradise not as a garden, but as a library. Following Andrew Carnegie’s example, let us continue striving to ensure that the public library does not become a paradise lost.