HE was worth more in his day than even the richest of the 21st century’s digital billionaires.
At the peak of his wealth, Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie had more money than the Tsar of Russia, and arguably nearly as much power.
The metal magnate was to give away almost all of his fortune, paying for nearly 3000 libraries the world over.
Now a key part of that legacy has been saved by the Carnegie Steel of the new Millennium, Apple. The tech giant has invested more than £23 million pounds to restore a Carnegie library in Washington, D.C.
The iconic Beaux-Arts monument is just a mile away from the White House on Mount Vernon Square. Apple’s conservation experts took two years to revitalize the building, inside and out. The computer company now has a store and an educational facility in the 1903 structure, which Apple will share with the current tenants, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The charity who also opened a brand new DC History Centre, complete with research library, three galleries, and a museum store.
!”I love the synergy between old and new, the juxtaposition of the historic fabric and contemporary design,” said Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive.
The restoration, however, just like the strike-breaking wage-depressing Carnegie, is not without its critics. Some question question whether or not the library can remain a free space for the public while also housing a for-profit company’s flagship store.
University of Southern California historian Kenneth Breisch, author of America’s Libraries: 1730-1950, said: “It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. I just question whether or not it will ever really be as democratic and public as it originally was as a public library. It’ll be intimidating to a lot of people who don’t have $500 or $700 to fork out for an iPhone.”
Meanwhile, Carnegie’s legacy in Scotland is largely faring well. In total, 56 burghs and parish councils throughout Scotland received the tycoon’s assistance to establish one or more local public libraries. A review of those local authorities reveals that over 70% have Carnegie buildings that still function as libraries today, a testament not only to the man who made them possible but also to the locals who have used them and maintained them over the last century.
Some buildings have recently benefited from renovations and extensions. The Dunfermline Carnegie Library, for example, the first the tycoon funded, in 1883, underwent a three-year extension project that finished in 2017.
It introduced a museum over two floors, three temporary exhibition galleries, a new children’s library, a local archives study space, and a mezzanine café with impressive views of Dunfermline Abbey and the Heritage Quarter.
The Carnegie library in West Calder, originally opened in 1904, also experienced a refresh in 2017. The 20-week project included restoring the library’s original floors and creating a modern environment with new shelving and furniture. West Lothian Council member Dave King praised the project at its completion, saying it would ensure that the building “will continue to be at the heart of the town for years to come.”
In a digital age of Apple and Google, do the3se projects mean we still need libraries. Another of Carnegie’s legacy, the UK trust he set up in 1913, think so. It commissioned a survey that found around half the population use public libraries, and of those users, two in five use the library at least once a month. Meanwhile, people are far more likely to say the library is important to their community (around three-quarters) than to themselves personally (two-fifths).
The trust is also partnering in the development of Scotland’s first national strategy for public libraries, and they’re encourage innovation and public engagement through initiatives like the Carnegie Library Lab and Engaging Libraries.
Carnegie funded over 2500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, including 660 in the UK and Ireland and almost 1700 in the United States. Why did he do it? Carnegie spent his teenage years as a telegraph messenger boy, benefitting from access to a small library funded by a retired merchant. He believed this is what made him his fortune. As Carnegie wrote to an applicant for a library building: “I believe that it outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”