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Andrew Carnegie and the St. Louis Public Library

At the time the St. Louis Public Library was going through tremendous growth, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was in the midst of one of the largest acts of private philanthropy in history. Carnegie credited much of his enormous success to having been granted access to a private library near Pittsburgh when he was a young immigrant. He decided to give others the same opportunity by funding public libraries.

Carnegie’s approach was businesslike. He required that communities furnish the land for a new library and commit to its support through taxes. He gave money for what he considered dignified but practical buildings. In this manner he altered the course of history, and gave funds to build over 1600 public libraries in the United States alone. Paperwork was kept to a minimum and much of the enormous philanthropic program was carried out by Carnegie’s secretary, James Bertram. Carnegie wanted his money spent on practical results.

With a single letter, Carnegie committed to help transform the St. Louis Public Library with a million dollar gift. Note the pragmatic insistence that only half his money be spent on Central Library. St. Louis, however, wanted a great library to rival those on the east coast, and supplemented Carnegie’s funds to eventually spend $1.5 million on Central’s construction alone. In this letter, Carnegie also requires half of his gift be spent to build branch libraries.

Note also that this thrifty Scotsman declined to have the letter – mailed from his mansion on Fifth Avenue – retyped because of a mistake.

Carnegie’s million dollar gift to St. Louis was one of the largest he made.

The Architect