How an American steel tycoon became the unlikely champion of free libraries

by Sally Blundell / 02 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Andrew Carnegie free libraries

Andrew Carnegie. Photo/Getty Images

Free? Suggestions that a town library should open its doors to all and sundry and allow for free borrowing of books were, for many early 20th-century councillors, preposterous. After all, libraries of the day tended to be private affairs run by and for the social elite. But open access and free borrowing underpinned Scottish-born American industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic mission to fund the establishment of public libraries throughout the English-speaking world.

Born to poor parents in Scotland in 1835, Carnegie was aged 13 when he moved with his family to Pennsylvania. There, he and other working boys were given free access to the private library of local businessman James Anderson. Carnegie went on to amass a fortune through the steel industry, but he never forgot Anderson’s largesse. On his retirement in 1901, he sold the Carnegie Steel Company for US$480 million and set about distributing his wealth, holding true to his adage that a man who dies rich “dies in disgrace”.

Carnegie funded 2509 library buildings, including 18 in New Zealand. The libraries boosted librarianship as a profession and pioneered reading rooms for children and integrated reading rooms for men and women.

But there were conditions. The chosen site had to be debt-free and councils had to guarantee an annual sum, usually 10% of the grant, towards upkeep. They were not to waste money on grand architectural statements and, most importantly, the libraries had to be free for borrowers. While most New Zealand councils complied with these requirements, some resisted. Hastings was one of several that tried to get away with charging a borrowing fee – when that library was devastated in the 1931 earthquake, the Carnegie Corporation (Carnegie himself died in 1919) refused to fund a replacement.

Carnegie was not without flaws. When workers at his Pittsburgh steel mill went on strike, he gave the go-ahead for a private army to move in. Nine workers were killed. Despite his working-class background, says US-born artist and photographer Mickey Smith, “he was not particularly a friend of the working man”.

Smith grew up with Carnegie libraries. When she was a child, her grandfather took her to the large Carnegie library in her home town of Duluth, Minnesota. She went there again as a young woman when the basement housed the local Planned Parenthood clinic. After graduating with a BA in photography from Minnesota State University in 1994, Smith worked in small railroad communities, “and every one had a Carnegie library. In the Midwest, it was a status for those communities – you would have your bank, your post office and your Carnegie library.”

Mickey Smith. Photo/Mickey Smith

Mickey Smith. Photo/Mickey Smith

In her new book, As You Will: Carnegie Libraries of the South Pacific, Smith has compiled a photographic tribute to these former bastions of self-education.

Of New Zealand’s Carnegie libraries, six have been demolished; three – in Westport, Hokitika and Dannevirke – have been deemed earthquake-prone; two – in Balclutha and Marton – remain as public libraries; and seven now have new roles, including a visitor information centre (Cambridge), a costume hire and Indian restaurant (Dunedin), a pizzeria (Fairlie), an art gallery (Gore), a gastropub (Onehunga) and a history centre (Thames).

“I am interested in them as places of archives and places of escape,” says Smith. “Anyone can escape into a book. I did that as a child and dreamt of travelling to places, but I would never have dreamt I would travel to New Zealand and do something like this.”

Smith moved to New Zealand in 2012 with her Kiwi husband, designer and musician Aaron Pollock. In 2015, she exhibited a series of film stills documenting Carnegie’s legacy at the Te Tuhi art space in Auckland. In December last year, however, before the completion of this book, Pollock died after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“He was alive and well when I started the project – it was just another project. So, the fact it is done now and he is not even here is hard. It’s hard to bring this out without him. But it makes me think a lot about legacy and what that means and what you leave behind.”

AS YOU WILL: CARNEGIE LIBRARIES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, photographs by Mickey Smith, essays by Charles Walker and Gabriela Salgado (Te Tuhi, $50)

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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