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A Giving Pledge, a Lasting Legacy: Buffet, Gates, Carnegie and America’s Public Libraries

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Photo by Nosiuol on Unsplash

“I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.”  ~  Andrew Carnegie

The efforts of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to encourage fellow billionaires to make a substantial “Giving Pledge” bring to mind another very fortunate man who saw value in giving: Andrew Carnegie.

PBS offers a detailed timeline of the life of the notorious robber baron and his rise in steel, transportation, communications and other business to become the richest man in the world. It also covers his devotion to philanthropy and human rights. Like Buffet and Gates’ recent pledges, Carnegie wrote himself a letter in 1868. At the time, he was determined to resign from business at age 35 and live on an income of $50,000 per year, devoting the remainder of his money to philanthropic causes and most of his time to education.

Carnegie was not very successful at giving up his interest in the business of the world, but he excelled at giving away his spoils. Wikipedia states that he actively gave away $350,695,653 (approximately $4.3 billion, adjusted to 2005 figures) of his wealth. A final $30,000,000 was bequeathed to foundations, charities and pensioners. All totaled, it represented 90% of the income of the richest man in the world.

How a Self-Made Man Gives Back

Of his many works, the most famous gift might be Carnegie Hall.

”How do you get there? Practice, practice, practice….”

Indeed, Carnegie specifically promoted the type of giving one might hope even Ayn Rand would approve of: Giving to the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.”

Carnegie, himself, is heralded as a quintessential self-made man. However, he never forgot the chance at self-education that he was granted by Colonel James Anderson, who gave young working boys like him a rare opportunity — access to his library. His philanthropy reflected this, such that there is an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the Carnegie Library. By 1919, nearly half of the United States’ 3,500 public libraries were financed by Carnegie construction grants.  

While Carnegie Hall is reserved for those who have achieved the top of their class, libraries were intended to be available to all. For free. True to his principles, however, the gift was far more about teaching to fish than providing a free lunch, and about gifts that keep on giving so long as the recipient keeps up its end of the bargain.

Carnegie, himself, is heralded as a quintessential self-made man. However, he never forgot the chance at self-education that he was granted by Colonel James Anderson, who gave young working boys like him a rare opportunity — access to his library…

While Carnegie Hall is reserved for those who have achieved the top of their class, libraries were intended to be available to all. For free. True to his principles, however, the gift was far more about teaching to fish than providing a free lunch, and about gifts that keep on giving so long as the recipient keeps up its end of the bargain.

Communities were always given great responsibility. The above mentioned Wikipedia article is quick to link to post Civil War housewives who formed the women’s clubs that, in turn, worked very hard to found 75-80% of US libraries.  Many of these were Carnegie libraries.  To receive his donation, Carnegie insisted that communities provide the site and be willing to raise taxes to cover at least 10% of construction costs, maintain operations and provide free service to all.  Today, it is still up to communities working hand in hand with generous patrons to foot the bill. Budgets face close public scrutiny. Winning support is critical.

 “We try to talk to communities about the value they get out of a library. I don’t think people realize how much libraries provide…every library service is free,” explains Todd Harvey, Partner at Beatty, Harvey, Coco Architects, which completed over 100 library projects in 20 years, “For the [taxpayer] cost of a couple best sellers or once a month blockbuster rentals, you can expand and get better library services. You can expand. It’s a tremendous bargain.”

The Perfect Gift: Information, Innovation and American Dreams

What could be more valuable to those chasing the American Dream? At essence, public libraries granted individuals freedom and access to self-directed education. In fact, a major design innovation that Carnegie spurred was the advent of open stacks. For the first time, people could wander the shelves on their own rather than be at the mercy of a librarian’s selection.

Of course, times have changed and technology has exploded. First, volumes were supplemented with microfilm and photocopiers. Later, space was made for VHS tapes, then DVDs. Now architects design for computer centers, building-wide wireless access, and…people….

“Libraries are much different than they were 10-20 years ago,” explains Harvey, “They used to be for the storage and access of information. Now, they’re places people go to create and exchange information.”

It isn’t all about print seeming somehow passé in a wireless world, though. Libraries are still relied upon heavily for their original primary service. Despite all the technology, library use and circulation is rising. Fast. “We’re not getting rid of books,” says Harvey, “but creating places that are much more.” Now, in a world where the volume of information is increasing exponentially, “Libraries are becoming the source to access that information and a place where you can come to understand it.”

“Libraries are amazing,” says Roger Smith, Principal of BBS Architecture, which worked on the four-branch Smithtown Library system on Long Island, NY, “When you’re shopping, you’re shopping. In a movie theater, you go see a movie. A library is different. You can do many things.”

It isn’t all about print seeming somehow passé in a wireless world, though. Libraries are still relied upon heavily for their original primary service. Despite all the technology, library use and circulation is rising. Fast. “We’re not getting rid of books,” says Harvey, “but creating places that are much more.” Now, in a world where the volume of information is increasing exponentially, “Libraries are becoming the source to access that information and a place where you can come to understand it.”

A Place of Our Own: Evolution by Community Design

Community rooms are now just as important as the book shelves. “They’re not just community rooms,” explains Harvey, “One evening you can hold a concert, lecture or film. The next you use the same room for computer classes or other programs. In the past you’d design a room just for one function. Now we’re designing a room that serves half a dozen.”

“There’s a tremendous demand for community and library programs from a wide range of groups: Cub Scouts, art classes, driver’s ed., seniors,” says Danny Tanzi, Senior Project Architect for H2M Group, which provides integrated architecture and engineering services, “No other public buildings have facilities open to everyone. Schools are limited in their use. Fire houses and others are limited to their membership.”

Libraries have now transcended their prestigious role as repositories to actively filling the void that was once the public square.  “Quite honestly, there’s a fundamental social vacuum and libraries are one of the only secular facilities to fill it,” says attorney John Caravella, “There’s really nothing else addressed to all members of the community. Religious institutions can do a good job of offering public education, but that’s not necessarily on their agenda and the broader community might not be so quick to take advantage of it.”

Smith agrees, “The public becomes broader, so much broader. You can look at the bulletin board and see the great things taking place. This is not what libraries were originally intended for. Yes, it was always a community building, but now…” Smith reflects on evolving roles, “Architects typically used to design structures without community input. I mean, you got input, but nothing like today. Now it’s community with a big ‘C’”

Libraries themselves are deeply involved in their own evolution. “I make many presentations and spend a lot of time talking about the ‘Human-Centered Library,’” says librarian Helen Crosson, “It’s not just books anymore.” Crosson worked closely with trustees, locals and Beatty Harvey Coco Architects (then Beatty Harvey and Associates) to spearhead a new building when she was the Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Library in NY. She became immersed in needs assessments, usage demand studies, blueprints and other technical documents you might expect a librarian to find, but not to design, “We spent a lot of time talking about lighting, cooling, heating and doors.”

 “Quite honestly, there’s a fundamental social vacuum and libraries are one of the only secular facilities to fill it,” says attorney John Caravella, “There’s really nothing else addressed to all members of the community. Religious institutions can do a good job of offering public education, but that’s not necessarily on their agenda and the broader community might not be so quick to take advantage of it.”

An Opprtunity; A Responsibility

New libraries model green design, emphasizing natural lighting and energy efficiency. “They’re the center of the community and they have an opportunity to set an example,” says Harvey, “I don’t know of a library we’re working on that’s not green or LEED certifiable.”

“Architects have an opportunity to do wonderful things and maybe have a responsibility.” says Smith, “I‘d hate to think the community was upset with a library I designed; that it wasn’t theirs. They’re a reflection of the community.”

Carnegie libraries, too, often became focal points for the community, and he encouraged communities to make them their own. Embracing symbolism in design, they were often the most formidable structures in town, featuring stairways representing the rising force of education and lampposts signifying enlightenment.  Today’s architecture focuses more on accessibility, but history remains important, “We’re trying to keep within the sense and character of the town; a sense of the vernacular,” notes Smith. For the Smithtown NY Library System, his firm designed the adaptive reuse of the Nesconset Armory. The community broke ground March 22, 2010.

“It’s not necessarily the quantity of space” says Harvey, “We don’t need warehouses for books. It‘s the quality.”

“When I walk inside, do I go to the Museum of Modern Art, The Louvre or the Mall?” asks Smith, “I want someplace I can sit quietly and believe I belong.”…and maybe even wander the stacks for a good book.

A Lasting Legacy

As a whole, the legacies of Carnegie libraries are like well-planted seeds that are good for the ecosystem and continue to bear fruit long after the gardener has gone. They remain an incentive and a focal point for community substance, gifts to be carefully tended, keys to doors leading toward American Dreams.

It’s a lasting gift to community, to freedom, and to a very individual experience. It is a gift that, generations later, still empowers us to take responsibility — both individually and communally — to achieve our own greatest potential.

Imagine the possibilities if today’s billionaires were to dig deep, and to carefully sow such seeds of their own? Imagine if we all were to rise to such a cause?

BTW….You don’t have to be a billionaire to get involved in the Giving Pledge. Warren Buffet’s sister, Dorothy, is seeking volunteers to help her give her brother’s money away.

Imagine the possibilities if today’s billionaires were to dig deep, and to carefully sow such seeds of their own? Imagine if we all were to rise to such a cause?