The Legacy of Andrew Carnegie

I was born and raised in a relatively large family of seven.

While we never went hungry, there wasn’t a lot of money left over for recreation and social activities.

As a result, one of my most important activities became a weekly trip to the downtown public library.

While I can’t imagine kids doing it in this day and age, beginning at the age of eight, each Friday after school I would clamber aboard the city bus and ride to the downtown St. Catharines Public Library.

Built in 1901, it was one of the 125 libraries built in Canada by Andrew Carnegie — the well known U.S. industrialist and philanthropist who provided what was then a not-so-insignificant $20,000 for the build. Two local businessmen purchased and donated the land.

Carnegie believed in books and the opportunities they provided, seeing them as the universities anyone could attend.

Libraries were his strongest philanthropic initiative, driven by a deep belief in, and passion for, free education. He ultimately was responsible for creating 2,509 free public libraries around the world.

As a child I knew I was entering an important building, despite entering it via the side door to the basement where all the children’s books were housed. It was an imposing brick building, three stories high, square and solid with graceful and soaring pillars at the main entrance.

I always felt excited as I perused the stacks and stacks of books, never quite believing that I would be able to take home five books simply by producing my well worn library card.

But perhaps just as important, that tranquil library provided me with an escape from an often unhappy family, and a window to new and different worlds.

Along the way I became a better informed citizen, improved my literacy to the point where in Grade 9 I was reading at a Grade 12 level, and got started on a journey that always made lifelong learning a priority.

Mastering the Dewey Decimal system also meant I could always find the resources I needed to succeed in school. Learning to read for pleasure has also meant I will never be bored.

Today I am still making use of libraries by downloading eBooks.

Yet, despite delivering these benefits, libraries and their value are being questioned, particularly as the internet has put so much information at our fingertips.

I find that rather sad.

Libraries have many roles to play in today’s communities.

For children it is a magical (and affordable) place for learning, reading, talking, and having fun. It’s a place for after school knowledge and for summer programs.

For those who may be disadvantaged, it is also a critical economic equalizer, ensuring equal access to technology and information. Students and job seekers can access computers for schoolwork, research, job searches, and more. Additionally, the homeless and the lonely can count on finding a safe and inviting sanctuary.

Libraries are also responding to the criticism from those arguing that technology has made them obsolete by morphing into local information hubs that curate, house, and help us stay connected to ever-increasing amounts of data.

They are also serving an increasingly significant role as “third places” (in contrast to the first and second places of home and work), as neutral public places where people can gather and interact.

As a third place, libraries not only pull us away from our computers and TVs, they provide a setting for grassroots politics, citizen involvement, and opportunities to express care and support for one another.

Like many others, I think I may have taken libraries for granted over the years. But, perhaps we all need to give some thought as to how we can do more to make sure they are preserved and protected. If nothing else we need to think about them as organizations worthy of our tax revenue as well as our individual charitable donations. 

Posted on 01-14-13

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