The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

May 5, 2013

Library lovers should thank Carnegie

KEVIN CULLEN
Commercial-News

Fifty years later, I remember getting my first library card. What a thrill!

The Danville Public Library was a few blocks from where we lived. Its children’s department was in the basement. The librarian was an old lady with thick glasses that made her eyes look gigantic.

I was in heaven. The shelves were filled with books about Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Indians, Davy Crockett, the Civil War, trees, rocks, crafts, cars, airplanes and other things I liked.

Later, I progressed to the “big library” upstairs, with the adult collection. I still can remember the heady sensation as I walked up those magnificent stone steps, crossed beneath the carved stone portal and opened one of the double doors.

It was a temple of knowledge; I felt ennobled. I was surrounded by thousands of books, newspapers and magazines. The reading room was adorned with stained glass windows, oil paintings, wooden moldings and plaster ornaments.

I was in a new universe, filled with ancient wisdom and undiscovered treasures … all free.

“Wow!” I thought. “It’s fun being an adult!”

Today, I’m thinking, “Thank you, Mr. Carnegie.”

Andrew Carnegie’s legacy was detailed in a book I bought the other day at a library book sale. “Carnegie Libraries” by George S. Bobinski tells the story of one of the greatest philanthropic endeavors ever.

Carnegie, the steel and railroad baron, was a poor Scottish-American immigrant boy who became the richest man in the world. Unlike most gazillionaires, he believed that the rich were obligated to give their fortunes to worthy causes. Carnegie gave away $350 million (in circa-1900 dollars). The final $30 million was given away after his death.

He loved libraries. When he was a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill, earning $1.20 a week, he looked forward to Saturdays, when he could visit a local private library.

Between 1886 and 1919, Carnegie donated more than $40 million for the construction of 1,679 public libraries across the United States. He built hundreds more in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

By the time he died in 1919, Carnegie had built more than half of the 3,500 public libraries in the United States. Danville’s Carnegie library, a stately example of the French Beaux-Arts style, served the public from 1904 until 1995. It now houses the county war museum.

Carnegie provided $65,000 — $40,000 for that building, and the rest for the library at the Soldiers Home.

He also funded Carnegie libraries in Hoopeston ($12,500 in 1903), Milford ($7,000 in 1904) and Ridge Farm ($9,000 in 1909). A few miles to the east, in Indiana, Carnegie libraries were built in Attica, Covington, Crawfordsville, Kingman, West Lebanon and Williamsport.

Andrew Carnegie believed that a man who died rich died disgraced.

He said he aspired to contribute to “the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers … sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.”

Thank you again, Mr. Carnegie.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at irishhiker@aol.com.