Considering Libraries in Their Historical Context

I would wager that most people, myself included, take a rather rosy view of public libraries. They are storehouses of knowledge, knowledge that is free for the people to access. More than that, they are community centers, places where all are welcome to bring their children, look for a job, or just find a quiet spot to read the newspaper. When Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs that the public library is “a model of what a community-run, not-for-profit, public service ought to and can look like,” I can’t help but nod in agreement. Of course, I say to myself—who doesn’t love libraries?

Before you get ahead of me: no, I am not about to argue that libraries are “bad, actually.” I probably wouldn’t even be writing this piece if I didn’t value their place in society. But I think it’s important that we consider that place in society critically, that we ask ourselves about the historical and material conditions that have made public libraries possible.

I recently finished reading Paul Krause’s book The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), an academic history of the 1892 Homestead lockout. A major event in United States labor history, the lockout is most famous for the events of July 6, which saw local steelworkers and agents of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency battle for control of the Homestead Steel Works. The ultimate defeat of the locked-out steelworkers signaled the decline of American trade unions, who would not come back to power until several decades later.

So what does labor conflict in western Pennsylvania have to do with libraries? Well, the Homestead Steel Works were the property of none other than Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in history and the benefactor of literally thousands of libraries the world over. It’s common to see Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts as separate from or contradictory to his role as a titan of the steel industry and an embodiment of wealth inequality. According to Krause, however, the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, libraries factor directly into the history of the Homestead lockout.

For Krause, the relationship between Carnegie the robber baron and Carnegie the philanthropist is complementary. It’s not just that the wealth he acquired made his generosity possible; Carnegie could also use the promise of his charitable efforts to justify business policies that were detrimental to workers. For example, as a precondition to building a library for a town, Carnegie required that the employees of the town’s steelworks agree to adopt a sliding scale that would tie their wages “to the fluctuating market price of steel,” instead of “an annual contract that was based on the consistently higher market price of iron” (p. 236). In other words, his plan to enrich the public’s access to knowledge rested on cutting his workers’ wages.

His 1889 dedication speech for the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock makes that plan explicit; Krause quotes at length from a section in which Carnegie addresses the question of whether he had plans to build a similar library in the union stronghold of Homestead:

“Do something for Homestead?” he retorted. “Well, we have expected for a long time, but so far in vain, that Homestead should do something for us.” If Homestead would only do something for him, he would be pleased to build a library there, too. “I am only too anxious to do for them what I have done for you, . . . I hope one day I may have the privilege of erecting at Homestead such a building as you have here; but . . . our works at Homestead are not to us as our works at Edgar Thompson [the steelworks in Braddock]. Our men there are not partners.” The AAISW [Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers], Carnegie continued, had strong lodges in Homestead that compelled him to pay exorbitant wages. “Of course . . . the firm may decide to give the men at Homestead the benefit of the sliding scale which you enjoy. I know that for the success of [the] Homestead works, regarded from the point of view of the capital invested, . . . the present system at Homestead must be changed.”

Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel, p. 237

Reading that part of the speech, I cannot help but picture Carnegie as a stereotypical mafioso, scratching his bearded throat as he offers to do a “favor” for the working class citizens of western Pennsylvania. Viewed in this light, it’s hard to see the libraries that Carnegie built in Homestead, Braddock, and elsewhere as charitable gifts at all. For a gift to be charitable, it must be freely given without the expectation of receiving something in return. At best, these libraries serve as monuments to Andrew Carnegie’s self-regard; at worst, they serve as tokens of economic extortion.

Lest one think this critique is simply a case of historical revisionism, Krause notes that there was significant skepticism and backlash towards Carnegie’s libraries in the late 19th century. First, steelworkers and local politicians understood his libraries as symbolic of his conflicts with labor, which explains why “in the thirty-three years during which Carnegie bestowed libraries, 225 communities turned down his offer,” including over 40% of towns he solicited in Pennsylvania (p. 238). Second, it’s not at all clear that libraries were all that beneficial to the towns where he built them—especially when compared to the wage cuts that accompanied them. Trade unions fought for higher wages, limits on working hours, and job security, all of which are necessary to even hope to enjoy a library. As one steelworker put it, “Carnegie builds libraries for the working men, but what good are libraries to me, working practically eighteen hours a day?” (qtd. in Krause, p. 239)

And all this doesn’t even touch on the shady way Carnegie acquired the land on which the library in Homestead was built. Krause details how Carnegie’s company colluded with the political machinery of western Pennsylvania to purchase the City Farm land for less than half of its market value (land that, perhaps coincidentally, overlooks the site of the Homestead Steel Works). Between the reduced wages of the town’s steelworkers and the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to municipal governments, one could plausibly argue that the Carnegie Library of Homestead represented a net loss for the region.

After learning about just how his libraries came into existence, I certainly take a more cynical view of Carnegie’s philanthropy; I see the man less as someone torn between noble and acquisitive impulses and more as someone who served the public good merely incidentally. (I say that as a beneficiary of his legacy: I earned my undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University.) Yet I cannot deny the fact that those libraries remain a benefit to the public. Last July, I wrote a short post about the theft of rare books from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The news that those books had been stolen and sold for profit enraged me, and I stand by that sentiment. Libraries belong to us—even when they’re imposed on us.

If there’s any takeaway I’d like to offer on this, it’s that no institution is pure, even an institution as noble as a public library. They are all subject to the social, political, and economic systems that produce them. Just be aware of that history, and maybe use the library’s resources to understand it better. Case in point: you can find a copy of The Battle for Homestead at the Carnegie Library of Homestead. What better use of a library card is there than to learn something critical about that library’s history?

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. In particular, how do we properly engage with a public institution like a library when we’re aware of the troubling history of how it came to be? I certainly wish I had a definite answer for that!

If you’d like to read more of my musings on libraries in their broader context, I’ll point you to this piece I wrote on the OCLC Library 100 list, and what that list tells us about literature and society. And as always, thank you for reading!