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American Library History

Page history last edited by shocklc@... 12 years, 5 months ago




 Benjamin Franklin


Since early in our nation's history libraries have played an important role in the American experiment. In colonial America books were rare and expensive and access to them was limited.  In 1731 Benjamin Franklin and his self improvement club, the Junto combined their literary  resources to form a subscription library called the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Each subscriber paid an annual fee to contribute to collection development.  Franklin calls the subscription library his "first project of a public nature" (B. Franklin 168).  He said this subscription library was the "mother of all the North American subscription libraries" (B. Franklin 169).  Franklin even intimated that libraries were partially responsible for encouraging colonists toward their declaration of independence.  "These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges" (B. Franklin 169).   Franklin attributed his own education to library access and made efforts to increase such access.   "This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me" (B. Franklin 181).  Nearly two centuries later, Franklin's philosophy of self improvement would be continued in the rags-to-riches story of Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie and his efforts to build America's free public libraries. 


             The Carnegie Library in 1915. This was the second library in Tulsa

(the first was located in the courthouse basement).

"The Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa."


Andrew Carnegie


Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth is a lesson in hegemonic propaganda.  In The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. wrote, "for a system of inequality to be stable over the long run, those who have more must convince those who have less that the distribution of who gets what is fair just, proper, or the natural order of things" (3).McNamee and Miller said that "according to the ideology of meritocracy, inequality is seen to be fair because everyone presumably has an equal (or at least adequate) chance to succeed, and success is determined by individual merit" (4). Carnegie explained the motives behind his plan to administer excess, "so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship"(5).  Carnegie justified economic disparity as being beneficial to the common good.   He said "much better this great irregularity than universal squalor"(Carnegie 6).  Carnegie stated, "not evil, but good, has come to the race from the accumulation of wealth by those who have the ability and energy that produce it" (10).  For Carnegie it wasn't luck or greed, but "ability and energy"  that determined wealth.   Carnegie credited the industrial revolution with creating gaping economic inequality and explained how that inequality was good for everyone.  "The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford.  The laborer has now more comforts than the farmer had a few generations ago"(Carnegie 7).  The industrial revolution brought rapid change to the economy and helped management grow rich from the toil of their employees. Carnegie came of age at the perfect time to take advantage of class divisions . Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote that "the best time during the history of the United States for the poor boy ambitious for high business success to have been born was around the year 1835" (44).  This was the year Andrew Carnegie was born. In the book Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell compiled a list of the seventy five richest people in human history calculated to current U.S. dollars.  "Of the seventy-five names, an astonishing fourteen are Americans born within nine years of one another"(Gladwell 88).  At number 2 on this list is Andrew Carnegie.  Gladwell contextualizes this phenomenon.  "In the 1860's and 1870's, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history.  This was when the railroads were being built and when Wall Street emerged.  It was when industrial manufacturing started in earnest.  It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy had functioned were broken and remade"(Gladwell 90).  To Carnegie, it was just and fit that the rich businessman would accumulate excess wealth on the backs of the laborer.  Carnegie's explanation for how the rich got richer was an example of social Darwinist ideologies of the late nineteenth century.  He posited that the ability to accumulate wealth was a genetic gift.  "That this talent for organization and management is rare among men is proved by the fact that it invariably secures for its possessor enormous rewards, no matter where or under what laws or conditions"(Carnegie  8-9);  it was simply a matter of science.  Excess wealth among the privileged few couldn't be helped.  "The laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of the few"(Carnegie 12).   It was an unfortunate necessity that sometimes the weak must be sacrificed for the progression of civilization.  "While the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because in ensures the survival of the fittest in every department"(Carnegie 8).  Those who would protest these simple laws of nature ran the risk of destroying the American way of life.  "The socialist or Anarchist who seeks to overturn present conditions is to be regarded as attacking the foundation upon which civilization itself rests"(Carnegie 10).   Carnegie felt it was better for those few who were blessed with the wisdom of wealth management to shepherd  the distribution of wealth for the good of the incompetent masses.  "The man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves"(Carnegie 20). Carnegie explained that philanthropy would ease friction among the classes.  He explained that his plan to dispose of excess wealth was "the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor"(Carnegie 17).  In Class In America Mantsios wrote, "class divisions arise from the differences between those who own and control corporate enterprise and those who do not" (188). Three years after Wealth was written, tensions between labor and management climaxed at Homestead, Pennsylvania.    When the price of steel fell, Carnegie and Henry Frick, the manager of the Homestead plant, sought to protect profits by lowering the wages of the workers.  When tensions rose Frick closed the plant and refused to negotiate with the union, hiring armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  They were met by thousands of workers and sympathetic townsmen.   A gunfight ensued.  The battle was bloody and both sides suffered casualties. The state militia was brought in and the union was defeated.  Charges were filed against union members, but juries wouldn't convict them.  

            Carnegie outlined his vision for the distribution of wealth.  He felt that public charity should not be given without forethought to return on investment.  "In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so.  The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise"(Carnegie 23).  Free public libraries were places where even poor people who were motivated and hard working could educate themselves and work to improve their status. "  The lazy, shiftless, and inept fall behind.  In this formation, you may not be held responsible for where you start out in life, but you are responsible for where you end up."(McNamee and Miller 5)  Libraries could serve as the medium for meritocracy.  "Thus is the problem of Rich and Poor to be solved.  The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free.  Individualism will continue"(Carnegie 23).   By funding libraries Carnegie felt he could appease angry laborers without sacrificing his capitalist values.  "When the American Library Association was organized in 1876, the number of public libraries totaled only 188.  By 1894, the number was about 400"(Jones 15).   By 1919, "3500 public libraries stood across the nation, and Carnegie had paid for half of them" (Jones 2).   The access to self improvement offered by libraries has all too often been entirely unequal and limited to only a select few.  





Segregated Libraries

Stereotypes of the Library Profession

The Future of Libraries

Libraries Works Cited


Comments (1)

Zak said

at 6:15 pm on Dec 18, 2010

Very nice; I liked how you connected the concept of the free library to American democracy, and talked about the future of libraries as a site for community discourse. Do you see any difference in how patron-librarian interactions occur now that most public libraries have automated self check-out systems? For example, the library in my hometown has ONLY self check-outs, and the only time I am likely to speak to the librarian is if I am having a problem with them. As was suggested by the clip you used, the librarian's role is being reduced to that of a technician, don't you think? At least in terms of the traditional check-out interactions.

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