He was fond of saying that “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” And so he, turned his attention to giving away his fortune. He abhorred charity, and instead put his money to use helping others help themselves. That was the reason he spent much of his collected fortune on establishing over 2,500 public libraries, as well as supporting institutions of higher learning. By the time his life was over, he had given away 350 million dollars.
Who was this American philanthropist? Andrew Carnegie.
This industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born on November 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Carnegie grew up in a family that believed in the importance of books and learning. The son of a handloom weaver, Carnegie grew up to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in America.
At the age of 13, in 1848, Carnegie came to the United States with his family. They settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and Carnegie went to work in a factory, earning $1.20 a week. The next year he found a job as a telegraph messenger. Hoping to advance his career, he moved up to a telegraph operator position in 1851. He succeeded at each new job; he worked hard, kept his eyes open, and mastered each position. As they say, the rest is history.
My hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina’s first “public” library opened on October 17, 1885, on the top floor of a two-story building facing Kennedy Place; it was a gift to the city. Among the library’s first holdings was Dr. Kennedy’s 600-volume medical library and some 300 other books collected by the citizens of Spartanburg. The yearly subscription fee was $3.
The facility soon was adopted by the Ladies Auxiliary Association, which kept it stocked with books and furniture. By 1899, the ladies realized that Spartanburg was on the verge of outgrowing the little library. They wrote Andrew Carnegie, asking for a contribution to help build a new library. After four years of correspondence, the Kennedy Library Board was notified in June 1903 that Carnegie would donate $15,000 if the city would purchase the land and contribute $1,500 annually in support of the library. And it was done.
His generosity helped communities construct 2,811 free public libraries across America and 13 in South Carolina.
“A taste for reading is one of the most precious possessions of life.” -Andrew Carnegie
“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon this earth as the Free Public Library.” -Andrew Carnegie
“The man who enters a library is in the best society the world offers” -Andrew Carnegie
In Union, SC is another library at 300 E. South Street which bears Carnegie’s name.
In Union Carnegie Library History, Jennie Holton Fant describes Carnegie as “a self-made immigrant,” who “succeeded in becoming the richest man in the world, with little education. He believed great wealth begets an obligation to provide for those of lesser fortune and he spent his money making books and information the shared property of all people, rich or poor. His free libraries were built to be a progressive hub of civic and cultural life for all citizens of a community. Fourteen towns in South Carolina benefited from the millionaire industrialist’s generosity between 1903 and 1920. He gave South Carolina $124,700 for thirteen public libraries to be built, and aid to one private library — the equivalent of over a million dollars today.”
The Union Library was the first public library in South Carolina.
Carnegie had a mission. This mission was born in Allegheny City, Pa., where Carnegie worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill — his job was to fill the bobbins with thread and oil them for the machines. He was determined to improve his lot, but he couldn’t pay the $2 subscription for a local library that was available only to apprentices (and he certainly couldn’t afford to buy books).
He sent a letter to the library administrator asking for access to the library, but the administrator turned him down flat. So 17-year-old Andy got the letter published in The Pittsburgh Dispatch.
“He made his case so well that the administrator backed off immediately,” explains Carnegie biographer David Nasaw. “And the library was opened to working men as well as apprentices. He got what he wanted.”
In 1889 Carnegie wrote an article called “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he spelled out his views on philanthropy: “In bestowing charity the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.”
I would describe myself as an avid reader. From the early years of reading about Dick and Jane, I have sought out stories. During elementary school years, there was a limit of 15 books that could be checked out of the Kennedy Library in Spartanburg. They could be kept for two weeks. I ravenously read my choices and was always ready to check out more before those weeks were up.
Following in the reading lists of Mother and my grandmothers, I tended to read historical novels and biographies. There was a series of biographies of famous people that were in orange covers that I perused over-and-over. Gwen Bristow, Ken Follett, and Inglis Fletcher enthralled me with places and times I could only read about. Historical fiction is still my go-to comfort, but suspense and stories about my state also have their places on my book shelves. Pat Conroy, David Baldacchi, Kristin Hannah, Anthony Doerr, John Grisham are a few favorites.
Another one of my favorite authors is Charles Dickens, and he said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Thank you, Andrew Carnegie, for giving so much money away to brighten our lives one hundred years later.