The Man Who Built 2,500 Libraries

By Michael Van Duisen on Tuesday, August 27, 2013
“The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” —Andrew Carnegie

In A Nutshell

After selling his company in 1901 and amassing a fortune equivalent to over $75 billion today, Andrew Carnegie devoted most of the rest of his life to philanthropy, specifically the building and funding of public libraries. By the time of his death in 1919, he had spent over 90 percent of his wealth on charity and had a hand in the construction of 2,509 different libraries, with locations in the US, the UK, Canada, and even Fiji. He had a firmly held belief the wealthy needed to share their fortune for the betterment of mankind.

The Whole Bushel

A Scottish immigrant to the United States in 1848, at the age of 13, Andrew Carnegie began his life in poverty, helping his family by working as a bobbin boy (someone who changed spools of thread in a cotton mill). Over time, with a combination of luck, hard work, and a few shady deals, he amassed a large fortune and his company, US Steel, became the first company in the world to be worth $1 billion. It was sold in 1901, and Carnegie’s wealth reached its apex—a value equivalent to $75 billion in today’s dollars.

Throughout his life, Carnegie espoused the fact the wealthy had a duty to spread their wealth to the less fortunate, usually through philanthropic efforts. (In 1889, he published an article titled “The Gospel of Wealth,” which argued it was okay to gather wealth in the beginning of one’s life but the money had to be given away before death, or it was wasted.) Carnegie spent the last 18 years of his life giving away his massive fortune to charity in pursuit of that idea.

There were a number of charities and causes that benefited greatly from Carnegie’s wealth, including museums, universities, and various cultural buildings. But his biggest contribution was the construction and funding of an enormous number of public libraries. Toward the end of the 1800s, public opinion began to accept the idea that free libraries should be a part of every community. Carnegie agreed, aiding in the establishment of 2,509 different libraries in a number of countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, and Fiji.

In total, Carnegie donated nearly 90 percent of his fortune, living up to the ideals he preached. In addition, he requested his name not be put on many of the libraries (not that he objected if they insisted). Instead, he asked the builders to place an engraving on the front of the library, which he described as the following: “a representation of the rays of a rising sun, and above ‘LET THERE BE LIGHT.’ ”

Show Me The Proof

Carnegie Libraries: The Future Made Bright
Philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie
Philanthropy 101: A Library of Your Own