Friday, 21 November 2014




Throughout my childhood, I regularly visited my hometown library. Second to the books I checked out at the library, the favourite part of my visits was the gorgeous architecture of the building. I grew up in a small town in the Niagara region of Ontario. The town is quaint, with the majority of the architecture being simple and dating between the mid twentieth century to the present. But the library was built in the early 1900s from the funds of American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919).

Black and white photo of Carnegie, wearing suit, has white beard.

Carnegie came from a modest working family, which immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1848 seeking a better chance at steady employment. Carnegie excelled in America, quickly rising through the ranks in industrial business. In 1901 Carnegie sold his business, Carnegie Steel Company, for $480 million (a deal that today is estimated as being valued at $310 billion). Carnegie is known as one of the builders of America and is still ranked as one of the top ten richest of all time.

After the sale of his company, Carnegie devoted the remainder of his life to family and philanthropy. The self-made millionaire donated $350 million to charities that focused on the advancement of learning, teaching, and technology. One of Carnegie’s main causes was the funding of library building. He built 2,509 libraries throughout his lifetime, 125 of which were built in Canada. Libraries were an important philanthropic cause because in the period access to the institutions was not free but through an annual subscription fee. Therefore the wealthy were primarily the ones that had access to library materials.

Black and white photo of Riverdale Branch Public Library in Toronto.

In spite of Carnegie’s significant philanthropic efforts, he should not be viewed entirely through rose-coloured glasses. The industrialist was not known for being the kindest to his workers; demanding long hours, paying low wages, and standing by his managers that locked out workers and intimidated strikers.

Colour photo of Riverdale Branch Public Library in Toronto today,

Philanthropy is also not a trait that is unique to Andrew Carnegie, but actually has a long American history. These acts of humanitarianism are rooted in religion but were undertaken as a means to correct and ‘better’ society. This is similar to museums of the period that became more accessible to the general public with the goal of instilling good habits and refinement.

Only a handful of Carnegie’s libraries still serve as libraries today, for in present day we require larger facilities. However, the beautiful buildings are still used for community purposes such as the storing of local history. To this day when I pass by the Carnegie library in my hometown I think of a different world, a world that shaped what I know today. That past world was a place of developing industrialism, extreme poverty and wealth, and limited education. While I don’t entirely agree with Carnegie’s life choices, I acknowledge his actions within the period that he was living and applaud his beautiful libraries.



  1. I always thought it was interesting how so many people considered "philanthropists" were never actually that kind to their own workers.

    1. I agree, Katherine. I suppose the "long hours, low wages" philosophy was helpful for amassing the riches that were later distributed via philanthropy, but of course that does not make that kind of behaviour right. There are certainly some ethical questions raised by the practices of Carnegie and others. Thank you for sharing his unique story, Mallory.