Andrew Carnegie, Patron Saint of Libraries

Monday, May 8, 2006

Andrew Carnegie, whose name has become almost synonymous with philanthropy, especially in the building of public libraries, was at one time known as one of the most ruthless examples of the Gilded Age "Robber Baron Class" of the late 1800s.

Carnegie was born in 1835 to a very poor weaver in Scotland. At an early age the family managed to make their way to the United States, where things were not a whole lot better. Young Andrew went to work at age 12 to help the family's finances. His first job was as a "bobbin boy" in a textile factory.

Later he advanced to a position as telegraph messenger boy, at $2.50 per week. It was during this time that he met Col. James Anderson, a man who had a profound effect on his life. Col. Anderson had a fine personal library of over 4,000 books, and he allowed working boys of his acquaintance to use his library, when they had the chance, at no charge. This introduction to books proved to be the greatest experience of Carnegie's life.

Carnegie may have started out in the depths of poverty, but he didn't stay there long. He proved to have a knack for spotting opportunity, and this, combined with a conservative nature and a disposition for hard work, quickly set him on a course toward wealth. Carnegie was still in his early 20s when he teamed up with a fellow who had invented a type of sleeping car for railroads. The concept was soon widely accepted and made both Carnegie and his partner wealthy.

Carnegie began the Civil War as an aide to Assistant Secretary of War. By the end of the war he had been named Superintendent of the Northern Army's railroads. He found that most of the country's bridges were made of wood, and those wooden bridges failed with alarming frequency.

When the war was over he invested heavily in steel companies, and took advantage of the post-war building spree, when bridge building as well as building construction switched from wood to steel. This, of course, proved to be very profitable, but the thing that assured Carnegie's place in Industrial history was introducing Bessemer's European process of manufacturing steel to the United States. (Up to this time iron, which was very heavy and brittle, was turned into lighter and much more flexible steel by using wrought-iron as one step in the process. This was time consuming and expensive. The Bessemer process turned iron into steel by blowing air through molten pig-iron in a converter.) This completely cut out the wrought-iron stage, dramatically bringing down the cost of steel and expanding the steel market.

Carnegie quickly seized upon his advantage in producing steel and by 1898 had acquired steel companies producing much of the steel in America, and he controlled much land in the iron ore producing regions around the Great Lakes.

Though streamlined, the production of steel was still hard, dangerous work, and Carnegie's insistence on maximum work for minimum wage brought him into conflict with unions and liberals in general. He was denounced as a greedy exploiter of the working class.

In 1901, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Chas. Schwab, and Elbert Gary put together the largest business ever launched when they merged Carnegie's and other steel companies into U.S. Steel. Almost immediately a J.P. Morgan cartel bought out Carnegie's interest in the company for $500,000,000, instantly making Carnegie the single richest man in the world, and enabling him to embark upon what became his life's greatest work.

Soon after retirement Carnegie published a book, "The Gospel of Wealth," outlining his philosophy. Oversimplifying his credo, Carnegie believed that in a capitalistic society the accumulation of wealth by a few was inevitable, and necessary for democracy and freedom to prevail, and for the whole of society to become prosperous. Attempts to circumvent the system would lead to anarchy and tyranny.

At the same time, Carnegie believed that the rich had a moral obligation to give their fortunes away before they died (No passing of wealth from generation to generation to build financial dynasties.)

The rich should create institutions that would give opportunity to anyone with the right character to become successful and rich.

Carnegie, following his own credo, did as he had preached and his last years were the most enjoyable of his life. Over the next 18 years, until his death in 1919, Carnegie gave over one third of a billion dollars to a variety of causes. (It is believed that had he lived Carnegie would have given all his fortune away.) His activities were varied, even to giving to a movement that would have simplified the spelling of the English language. He helped Universities. He built college buildings and churches. But his passion was the building of some 2,000 Libraries, in his native Scotland and throughout the English speaking world, but primarily in the United States, where he built almost 1700 Civic Libraries (that would be free to the public). He built 69 Libraries in Nebraska.

The Carnegie Libraries in the United States were built in a variety of architectural styles. Some, like the Library in Pittsburg, were ornate Greek Temples. Some, like the Library in Plainview, Neb., were identifiable square, plain, upright dark brick structures. A few, like ones in Ohio and Nebraska had a definite Southwestern theme. Any city could apply for the funds to build a library. There were few restrictions, but one that was always followed, "The Library had to be Free to the Public" ...

McCook actually was one of the first communities to take advantage of Andrew Carnegie's offer of a free Library. McCook received its charter to build a Carnegie Library in 1902; however, it was not until 1907 that the library, located at Norris and E Street was constructed. For many years the Library served the community in a variety of ways. First and foremost, of course was to provide the community with books to empower the McCook public with resource books (so anyone with the will could improve himself), and recreational books (to provide wholesome entertainment) -- all at no cost to the patrons.

But the McCook Library served the community in a variety of ways. The Library served as a meeting place for Boy and Girl Scouts and other civic groups. For a long time the Library was the voting center for that part of McCook. And for Russ Dowling and his '30s classmates it was a romantic spot. In the evenings the girls would congregate at the Library to study. The boys would drift across the street to the YMCA. At 9 p.m., when the library closed, the boys would walk the girls home. At the end of the semester the girls, who studied, got As, the boys who hung out at the Y, got C's.

From 1928 until her retirement in 1953, Miss Milicent Slaby was the Librarian at the Carnegie Library. She was both beloved and feared. She ruled her domain with an iron hand. Patrons who had been boys and girls during her reign remember her as stern, but very willing to find a certain book that was needed to complete a project. She was always available to assist a patron who was using the Library to advance in his own business, or to explore opportunities in other fields. In short, she was helping the Library to do exactly as Andrew Carnegie intended.

Miss Slaby loved her job. She loved books. She loved her patrons. She also loved the Carnegie Library, as shown in this poem she penned, discovered after her death:

The Library

My Spanish Castle on the hill is really home to me.

I live there with my books, and fill my days with ecstacy.

My friends drop in to read and chat, they are my great possession

And the luxury of fragrant flowers go to make up my obsession.

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