The Paradox of Carnegie Libraries

Must Libraries Be Publicly Owned?

Chris Cardiff is a homeschooling father of three spirited girls and a vice president of AOL. Neither AOL nor his family necessarily endorses his views.

People with a weak grasp of history are aghast when someone questions one of their fundamental assumptions. Questioning the public-goods theory of government-owned-and-operated libraries seems to shut down a conversation immediately. People leap to the conclusion that you are against libraries and want to eliminate them. Everyone loves libraries—how could anyone be against them?

The real issue is not whether there will be libraries, but whether we need government, even if it’s only local government, to provide them. Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of libraries without using the immoral force of government to establish and support them? Tracing the growth and development of libraries throughout history provides alternatives to government ownership and control. As will be shown, the most instructive of these examples is the paradox presented by Carnegie libraries. History also illustrates the dangers to the flow of information and knowledge when governments control libraries.

Libraries were not always as we know them today. Their history is intertwined with the invention of the printing press, the growth of literacy, and other economic factors influencing the supply of and demand for books. On the supply side, for example, Gutenberg’s printing press significantly increased the availability of books.

And on the demand side, the Protestant Reformation increased literacy dramatically in Europe because of its emphasis on understanding the word of God directly from the Bible rather than through priestly intermediaries.

However, even with the huge increase in books because of the printing press, most families still could not afford them. Into this chasm between supply and demand stepped the free market with several innovations that lowered the cost of accessing books and other reading material.

As Fred Lerner relates in Libraries Through the Ages: “By the 18th century, French and British booksellers allowed people to read books in their shops for a small fee, and rented them for home reading. London coffeehouses provided newspapers and magazines for their customers, and sold reading privileges by the hour to those who did not want coffee or beer. Subscription reading rooms offered middle-class readers access to published news and comment in more genteel surroundings, while aristocrats enjoyed the reading facilities of their clubs.”1

It was a small step from there to the first subscription library in America. Benjamin Franklin led the way in the early eighteenth century. For a reasonable fee subscribers had borrowing privileges for any books in the library. Less than half a century later Franklin’s model had spread throughout the colonies. One such subscription library, Mudie’s Select Library, charged an annual fee less than two-thirds the price of a single novel. For this fee Mudie’s patrons had access to their choice of all new novels as well as many other fiction and nonfiction books.2

It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that the battle was joined over government funding and control of libraries. Given the growing success of the private-sector libraries, there was enormous resistance to government’s taxing citizens for their support. For the most part, voters rejected the idea. Those few approved were generally inadequately funded and maintained.

Lerner cites the New York Free Circulating Library as representative of voter attitude: “Many New York leaders believed that libraries were a charitable enterprise rather than an essential municipal service.” Founded in 1879, New York’s first public library was funded by private individuals for its first seven years. Well-known philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Samuel J. Tilden contributed significant financial support even after it began receiving government funding.3

Carnegie’s Great Leap Forward

Into this public-versus-private debate entered industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Born into a poor family, he could have been the model for the Horatio Alger novels. As a boy he worked first in a cotton mill and then as a telegraph messenger. A turning point in his life came when Colonel James Anderson opened his personal library to working boys. Largely self-educated through access to this library, Carnegie used his knowledge to bootstrap himself into one of the premier industrialists of his time.

Through his investments in railroads and steel he amassed an enormous fortune. Even before he retired he vowed to donate the bulk of his fortune to charitable enterprises before he died.

Carnegie had strong opinions on charity, believing that more than 90 percent of donations did more harm than good. His philanthropic philosophy emphasized providing a hand up rather than a handout: “The main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.”4

Libraries became a cornerstone of Carnegie’s philanthropic activities. They fit perfectly with his philosophy: “The fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.” They also fit perfectly with his own experience. Access to the private library of Colonel Anderson was fundamental to his own success in life—a success he wanted to see duplicated for everyone.

Carnegie was a fervent believer in and articulate champion of capitalism. As he himself proclaimed, “Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition . . . are the highest results of human experience, the soil in which society so far has produced the best fruit.” Yet despite his advocacy of free-market principles, Carnegie allied himself firmly on the side of those who believed libraries should be provided by government.

As Carnegie watched proposals for government libraries fail at the ballot box, he developed his own plan for overcoming voter resistance. He started out modestly, establishing libraries in his hometown in Scotland and then endowing libraries throughout Pennsylvania in many of the towns where he had built steel mills. He later referred to these efforts as his “wholesale” period. These initial efforts were fully funded by his private endowments.

The “wholesale” seeds he had planted in a few key cities created an enormous demand for Carnegie libraries. To handle these numerous requests Carnegie developed his “retail” approach. The libraries from his “wholesale” period were established as private institutions. Now he granted libraries to any city that requested one as long as it met two key conditions: (1) it donated the land and (2) it committed to maintaining the library by an annual amount equal to 10 percent of the initial grant.

This formula transformed the debate over government ownership of libraries. In less than a generation, hundreds of Carnegie libraries were built in small towns throughout the United States. By the time Carnegie’s program ended in the 1920s almost 1,700 Carnegie libraries owned and operated by local government had been funded in over 1,400 communities.

This is the paradox of Carnegie libraries. Using his own fortune, Carnegie was able to establish a comprehensive public library system throughout the United States. Yet despite his ability to leave these libraries in the private sector, he essentially used them as a massive bribe to overcome the public’s resistance to financing them through taxes.

With over 15,000 public libraries in the United States today and information and books available to all, some might find it hard to fault Carnegie, believing him to have done our country a great service. However, there is a dark side to libraries that are owned and operated by the government.

Banning Books and Promoting Propaganda

People value libraries because they are a low-cost means of accessing information and entertainment. But what happens when the government exercises control over the information available in libraries?

Totalitarian regimes exemplify the extreme example of government-controlled libraries. In the Soviet Union Lenin strongly supported public libraries, making their primary purpose “educat[ing] the public strictly towards a revolutionary outlook and revolutionary action.” Changes in Soviet policy and leadership purges were quickly reflected on the shelves of the local libraries. Libraries were used both as a means of censoring opposing ideas and disseminating government propaganda.5

Nazi Germany followed a similar model to promulgate the concept of Aryan superiority. Books by Jewish authors were banned from libraries and became fodder for book burnings, while books extolling the superiority of the German people were strongly encouraged. As Lerner states, “Even the library catalogs were revised to reflect Nazi views on race and nationalism.”6

While the potential for abuse is large whenever government controls an important source of information, such abuses are still the exception rather than the rule in America. But although we live in a much freer society than the despotisms mentioned, libraries in the United States are not immune from temptation. In the past public libraries have banned such classics as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Regarded by many as America’s greatest novel, Huckleberry Finn was banned from numerous public libraries, including the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library in 1885, the year of publication; the Brooklyn Public Library; and the Denver Public Library.7 Reasons for the ban have ranged from the book’s dialect and grammar to its irreverence to Huck’s references to his friend, the slave Jim.

The American Library Association (ALA) adopted a “Policy on Governmental Intimidation” in 1971 to help preserve the intellectual freedom that it felt government was encroaching on. The policy included resolutions stating that “the ALA Membership . . . recognizes the danger to intellectual freedom presented by the use of spying in libraries by government agencies” and that the “ALA asserts that no librarian would lend himself to a role as informant, whether voluntarily revealing circulation records or identifying patrons and their reading habits.”8

The ALA’s stand on government intimidation, however, does not mean it is beyond reproach when it comes to suppression of intellectual freedom. Last year, a Toledo, Ohio, public library refused to stock the book Killer Angel, a critical biography of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and an icon of today’s “liberals.”

The ALA defended the decision by stating that librarians were the gatekeepers as to what was appropriate for library patrons. These of course are government-paid librarians in government-funded libraries. It’s not accidental, as one anonymous staffer in the Toledo public library system noted, that libraries promote political bias by buying fewer copies of “conservative” books than “liberal” books. But according to the ALA’s thinking, banning or suppressing books at the librarian level because of ideological bias does not count.9

Book-selection bias is a political issue because the overwhelming majority of our public libraries are funded and controlled by government. Privately owned and operated libraries could set their own policies. Those who objected to them could patronize a competing library with different policies. This free-market model has an overwhelmingly successful track record in providing other kinds of consumer choices.

Of course, only a small percentage of library materials are overtly political or controversial. Although a case can be made that all materials have political assumptions embedded in them, much of what the average library stocks in books, records, tapes, CDs, and videos falls into the entertainment category. But that raises another issue. Do we really need government libraries buying 50 copies of the latest Spenser mystery or Madonna’s new CD? Or is this just another case of people voting themselves benefits at the expense of their neighbors? Private libraries would also satisfy this moral objection to government-funded libraries.

Private Libraries Today

Despite the prevalence of government libraries, models of private libraries still persist today. At one end of the spectrum are small specialty libraries like the one maintained by our local homeschooling support group. Larger specialty libraries exist also; for example, the McClellan Funding Information Library specializes in books on grant funding for nonprofits. Financed by donors, it is a resource for the entire San Francisco peninsula region. On an even larger scale, private universities also maintain their own specialty and general-purpose libraries.

The famous Huntington Library in San Marino, California, followed the original Carnegie “wholesale” model. Richly endowed by Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate, the library gives scholars free access to its extensive collections of British and American history and literature. The Huntington Library also resembles Franklin’s subscription model because it charges membership fees to the general public to view its exhibits, rare books, art collections, and botanical gardens.

Finally the Internet brings us a high-tech alternative in the form of a digital library. On-Line Books ( has published many classics, both fiction and nonfiction, whose copyrights have expired. Over 13,000 titles are available free of charge, ranging from Huckleberry Finn to Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law.

From subscription libraries funded by user fees to libraries fully endowed by generous donors, free-market alternatives to government libraries have abounded. And despite crowding out by the government model, many examples of private libraries still exist today.

Americans have a history of generosity. Given the value we place on libraries, there is no doubt that many people, both of modest and abundant means, would follow Andrew Carnegie’s original model of donating to privately owned and operated libraries.


  1. Fred Lerner, Libraries Through the Ages (New York: Continuum, 1999), p. 97.
  2. Ibid., pp. 97–98.
  3. Ibid., p. 101.
  4. Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” North American Review, June 1889, pp. 653–64; reprinted in The Gospel of Wealth (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1998).
  5. Lerner, p. 105.
  6. Ibid., p. 106.
  7. Herbert N. Foerstel, Banned In the U.S.A. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 150–51.
  8. Intellectual Freedom Manual, Fifth Edition (Chicago: American Library Association, 1996), chapter four, p. 165.
  9. Patrick Poole, “Censoring Library in Hot Water Again,” World Net Daily, June 14, 2000. (

Further Reading