As the teenage son of an unemployed Scottish Weaver in Pittsburgh, Andrew Carnegie understood the value of libraries. Not able to go into his local library because it charged a subscription fee, he and other children from the factory where he worked were offered the chance to use a local merchant’s personal library, where he imbibed knowledge which would later help to make him one of the richest men who ever lived, and the embodiment of The American Dream.
As an adult he would become a steel tycoon, building a huge company which he sold to JP Morgan for $480 million dollars (in 1901 this was the biggest business transaction to have ever taken place). Carnegie didn’t want his money for himself however, instead sowing seeds for future learning, so all children, regardless of their income, would have access to books and the infinite knowledge that they held.
“A Library outranks any one other thing a community can do to benefit its people,” he said, “It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
Carnegie’s trust built libraries across America and the UK, as well as three in European cities devastated by World War 1; but his first library was built in Dunfermline, his birth place. The motto – ‘Let There be Light’ – is now familiar to borrowers and staff at Edinburgh’s Central Library, where the logo also appears, a reminder of the importance of libraries and what they offer.
Andrew Carnegie laying the foundation stone of the Edinburgh Free Library, 1887
Edinburgh Central Library opened in 1890, and was the first public library in the city. The building was designed by George Washington Browne and is built from Stirlingshire stone. 1428 books were issued on the first day, and 44,774 people registered as readers in the first year alone.
A bust of Andrew Carnegie keeps watch over his collection.
Read all the articles in this series of ‘The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries’:
George Washington Browne: architect
Robert Butchart: City Librarian
Henry Dyer, engineer, educationist and Japanophile
William McEwan: brewer and philanthropist
David Mather Masson: scholar and biographer
Thomas Ross: architect and antiquarian
Charles Boog Watson: local historian and antiquarian