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.

Latest

Simon Bridges searches for a miracle
108491 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges searches for a miracle

by Graham Adams

The opposition leader hoped to pick up election-winning tips in Australia.

Read more
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa
108416 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apa…

by Clare de Lore

Scathing critic of South African Government corruption Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, here to give a public lecture, has insights about forgiveness after...

Read more
Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland
108287 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Books

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Und…

by Tony Murrow

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Read more
Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for frying
108203 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for…

by Jennifer Bowden

For decades, the word in the kitchen has been that olive oil shouldn’t be used for frying, but new research could change that.

Read more
Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours
108108 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

by Linda Herrick

Gretchen Albrecht paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

Read more
That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch
108435 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Television

That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a pun…

by Diana Wichtel

The taboo-busting doco is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

Read more
Are there too many tourists in NZ?
108444 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Are there too many tourists in NZ?

by North & South

Here's what's inside North and South's August 2019 issue.

Read more
Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more