Celebrating Andrew Carnegie, a big fan of the public library

mbenac@bcgov.netNovember 25, 2012 

Born on Nov. 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, Scotland, Andrew Carnegie immigrated to the United States in 1848 with his parents.

Before leaving Scotland, his Uncle "Dod" introduced him to the writings of Robert Burns. As a young reader, Carnegie was influenced by Scottish heroes such as William Wallace, Rob Roy and Robert the Bruce.

By 13, Carnegie worked in a factory as a bobbin boy, changing the spools of thread in the mill for $1.20 a week (working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week). His work history began prior to labor laws that prevented children from working long hours in the factory for little pay. In 1850, he became a telegraph messenger for the Ohio Telegraphy Company's Pittsburgh office for $2.50 a week, with the perks of being able to attend the local theater for free. Though he worked tirelessly, Carnegie still took the time to read. Colonel James Anderson made his personal library available to working boys every Saturday night; as public libraries were not a part of American culture until 1886.

In the 1920 "Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie," Carnegie wrote, "Every day's toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty." Thus began his love of books and the lending service that was available for free.

Although Carnegie wasn't a soldier during the Civil War, he did accompany Union troops on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was responsible for the telegraph system on the train. In his autobiography, he remarked about his "war wound," which was actually a scar on his face that he got while mending a broken telegraph wire. His work sending and intercepting telegraphs helped to lead the Union soldiers to victory at the Battle of Bull Run. His patriotic act during the Civil War led to a series of prosperous financial relationships that helped him acquire several steel companies.

In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million dollars. In February 2008, Forbes Magazine noted that if Carnegie were alive today his net worth would be $298.3 billion dollars.

Carnegie never forgot about the value of reading and having a good education. He began several philanthropic ventures -- Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, to name a few -- as a means to give back to the community a portion of what he had earned.

Between 1903 and 1913, 16 counties in South Carolina applied for a Carnegie Grant to build libraries. Thirteen counties were awarded $5,000 to $18,000 to build the libraries; however, the local municipalities had to agree to operate the facilities with local funds.

In 1918, Beaufort County dedicated the Carnegie Library that is on the corner of Craven and Carteret streets. The building's total cost in 1918 was $78,600, which, according to www.measuringworth.com, would be equivalent to $2,340,000 in 2011. By 1929, there were 1,689 Carnegie libraries in the United States, along with 1,000 Carnegie libraries built worldwide.

So today we tip our hats and raise our books to say, "Happy birthday, Andrew Carnegie!"

To read more about Carnegie, check out "Carnegie," by Peter Krauss or the "Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie" from your local library.

You also can access more information about Carnegie using the library's DISCUS database. Passwords for home access are available at all Beaufort County libraries.

Maria Benac is the branch manager at the St. Helena Island library.

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