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 Carnegie’s 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. Libraries provide us with books, periodicals, and other tools for learning, understanding, and progress. They represent the link between the solitary individual and the community. After all, 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.
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At the heart of the library is the book, one of mankind’s most imaginative and extraordinary inventions. From the clay tablets of Babylon to the illustrated manuscripts of the medieval age, from printed leather-bound tomes to the e-books of today stretch more than 5,000 years of humanity’s insatiable desire to establish written immortality. Books allow us to realize that knowledge requires others, to learn from as well as to ensure the continuity of knowledge, culture, and memory. We read to know we are not alone. When we read, we place ourselves in a continuum of history and in community with our fellow human beings. A book becomes a link in that great chain of the human experience, wherein one can learn from the past and share in the wisdom, strivings, fantasies, longings, and experiences of past, present, and future generations.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of the classic authors of 20th-century literature who spent part of his career working as a librarian, paid tribute to mankind’s tireless ingenuity: “Down through the ages, Man has imagined and forged no end of tools. He has created the key, a tiny metal rod that allows a person to enter an enormous palace. He has created the sword and the plowshare, extensions of the arm of the man who uses them. He has created the telescope, which has enabled him to investigate the firmament on high.” And the ne plus ultra of this ceaseless questing? The book. It is the book, Borges observes, that is “a worldly extension of his imagination and his memory.” He goes on to say, “I am unable to imagine a world without books.… Now, as always, the unstable and precious world may pass away. Only books, which are the best memory of our species, can save it.”
At the heart of the library is the book, one of mankind’s most imaginative and extraordinary inventions. From the clay tablets of Babylon to the illustrated manuscripts of the medieval age, from printed leather-bound tomes to the e-books of today stretch more than 5,000 years of humanity’s insatiable desire to establish written immortality.
Thanks to the printing press and the computer, the book remains the world’s most powerful invention. That power tends mainly from the way the book has democratized access to knowledge. Beginning with Johannes Gutenberg, the development of printing capabilities lessened the time and cost needed to create a book, leading to their wider dissemination. The greater presence of the printed word cultivated the study and spread of ideas, which ultimately led to the Renaissance as well as the Enlightenment. With the Enlightenment came the idea that all people are endowed with an unlimited rational capacity and possess a natural right to knowledge. This urge for self-improvement through reading was eventually linked with the idea of progress, and — with it — support for both public education and public libraries.
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 Andrew 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 public library– enabling laws, but legislation alone was not enough to bring these libraries into existence. By 1896, there were still only 971 public libraries in the United States holding 1,000 volumes or more.
Years later, 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 over 1,600 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, “can man erect the structure of an enduring civilization.”
In The Gospel of Wealth (1889), 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. One could say that, in effect, these were the world’s first matching grants. 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. It was for Carnegie no exaggeration to say that the public library “outranks any other one thing that a community can do to help its people.”
Moreover, he believed that “people never appreciate what is wholly given to them so highly as that to which they themselves contribute.” To Carnegie, the existence and welfare of the library was of paramount importance to the life of a community, a society, and a nation. This idea was not unlike one expressed by Benjamin Franklin, who after the Constitutional Convention, was asked what kind of government the delegates had created. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Both Franklin and Carnegie placed the onus on the American people to utilize and protect what they had been given. Carnegie’s libraries, and indeed all public libraries, are ours, if we can keep them.
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. According to two distinguished historians, Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, the most effective impetus to the public library movement in the United States did not come from official sources or from “public policy.” It came from the generosity of Andrew Carnegie. This generosity was, in turn, the result of Carnegie’s genuine passion for education, his persuasion that the public library was the most democratic of all roads to learning, and his mindfulness of the debt he owed to books and the love he felt for them. Another scholar, Harold Underwood Faulkner, went further, crediting Carnegie with being the greatest single incentive to library growth in the history of the United States.
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. It’s fantastic that we can search this treasure house, pluck out what we want — or, at least, what we think we want — and, with great satisfaction, bring it everywhere we go on those tiny computers we carry in our pockets, our smartphones.
Yet, we cannot approach the new pathways to knowledge and information opening to us without caution. The digital revolution has the tendency to reduce us to the misanthropic bibliophile in The Twilight Zone, who finds himself utterly alone in a postapocalyptic world that has been destroyed by nuclear war. But he has his beloved books and “time enough at last” to read them undisturbed. Then, he breaks his glasses and is unable to read any of the books piled up about him. As the past few years have shown, undigested facts do not amount to knowledge. Furthermore, the current proliferation of information is accompanied by its corollary pitfalls, such as counterfeit information, inflation of information, and apparent — or even real — obsolescence. As was the case for the printing press, the spinning jenny, the steam engine, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, and the television, the impact of the technological revolution ushered in by the age of information lies not in the machines themselves but in how we allow them to organize, structure, and empower our lives.
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.
In one of his most famous stories, “The Library of Babel,” 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 amidst 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.
The computer and the Internet have shrunk the traditional barriers of time and space, giving us the ability to record, organize, and quickly communicate tremendous amounts of information. Borges reminds us that it is inherent in human nature to seek knowledge, but without a way of understanding it, without an education, we become lost. Although we generate and have access to so much information and data, we are too often blinded by our inability to understand it in tandem with centuries of human experience. It was this phenomenon that prompts Father Païssy to lament, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, about the powerful who “have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvellous.”
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. At its core, the problem of Babel’s library is that the inquisitors, seeking knowledge only for themselves, are unable to guide others. In the relentless quest for the answer, they disregard what they do find, making no attempt to understand it. 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.
Reading Borges’s story brought to mind my dear friend, the late Lola Szaldits, a librarian and the renowned curator of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library. Lola knew “her” collection better than anyone and was constantly on the lookout for new material to add to it. She had engaged deeply with the texts, archives, rare books, and other materials held by the Berg. Thus she took delight in helping scholars explore and discover the variety and wonders contained within. Reflecting on her responsibilities as a librarian in an interview with the New Yorker, Lola said, “I try to create quiet and the timelessness that allows for the pursuit of truth. The young, especially, need a great deal of time.” She continued, “I would reap havoc or madness by confusing our users — by not sizing up a question from a caller or correspondent and sending him in the proper direction or helping him discover it himself.” Only through education does one learn how to understand and digest the information found, how to place it in the correct context, how to understand its limitations.
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 around a ream of blank paper. Books require action, not just possession. They demand to be read. Reading at once entails the effort to comprehend and the effort to incorporate. It requires a process of digestion. The Renaissance polymath François Rabelais advised the reader of his comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel to “eat the book,” by which he meant that books cannot nourish or even be said to exist until they are digested. Only when one takes the time to read, study, and reflect on a text, does one come to know it, to understand it.
On the whole, I remain optimistic about the possibilities offered by a lively coexistence between the book, the library, and technology. 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 “luxuries.” 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. Maintaining these sanctuaries and cultivating their collections requires not only community support but also financial assistance.
In keeping with Andrew Carnegie’s legacy in the century after his death, Carnegie Corporation of New York has supported a number of projects which help libraries advance the democratization and preservation of knowledge through technology. Since 1997 we have made over 140 grants totaling $84 million in this domain. These projects have transcended institutional as well as geographic boundaries, amassing and conserving mankind’s heritage and ensuring that these materials are freely available online to students, researchers, and scholars — and, not least, to Virginia Woolf’s “common reader,” who reads for pleasure. The full scope of those grants cannot be encompassed here, but a few highlights from some of these initiatives will serve.
In 2009 we provided the Library of Congress with funding to create the World Digital Library (WDL), an international collaboration of over 160 libraries from 75 countries, to provide virtual access to cultural heritage materials from all world regions. Today, this free online library contains more than 19,000 rare books, manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs, films, and sound recordings contributed by partner libraries, archives, and museums. Unlike other digital libraries, it functions in seven languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. The World Digital Library helped develop an international network of librarians, curators, historians, and information technology professionals, ensuring that important historical texts from around the world, previously inaccessible to all but a small number of scholars and academic researchers, can now be studied by anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection.
Similarly, we funded Arabic Collections Online (ACO) at New York University, creating a 23,000-volume, open-access Arabic-language digital library. Much of ACO’s growing readership is in areas where libraries are not easily accessible. The Corporation has also supported libraries in Africa as well as preservation and digitization projects throughout the United Kingdom.
To salute the work of librarians, in 2008 Carnegie Corporation of New York established the I Love My Librarian Award in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) and the New York Times. To date, patrons of libraries from around the country have submitted over 19,000 nominations detailing how their local librarians have radically improved the day-to-day lives of the people they serve by connecting them to information, educational opportunities, and technology. The Corporation not only contributes cash prizes but also hosts the much anticipated annual event at its New York headquarters. Thus far, 110 librarians have received this honor, many of them giving moving testimonials about their work at the awards ceremony. The event and the New York Times quarter-page ad announcing the winners pay homage to all librarians, the unsung heroes of our democracy. And in 2012, with Corporation support, the ALA began awarding the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. Unlike other major book awards, which are judged by authors and critics, the winners of Carnegie Medals are selected by librarians.
To mark Andrew Carnegie’s faith in the future of New York’s libraries in particular, we gave a series of gifts in 2000 to the city’s three public library systems to promote literacy, the preservation of texts, and the improvement of children’s library services. The Corporation also supported The New York Public Library’s efforts to digitize over 200,000 unique and rare audio and moving image materials, including films, audio recordings, discs, and other materials in a range of formats (many of them now obsolete). In 2015 we helped the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — The New York Public Library’s research and cultural institution dedicated to preserving the rich legacy of the global black experience — to plan and implement public programming and events commemorating the center’s 90-year history.
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 Andrew 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, Andrew 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 the example of Andrew Carnegie, let us continue striving to ensure that the public library does not become a paradise lost.