Vol. 2 / No. 3 / Fall 2003  

A Short history of Carnegie Corporation’s Library Program

 Although Andrew Carnegie established more than 20 organizations in the U.S. and abroad dedicated to philanthropy, promoting international peace, rewarding selfless heroism and pursuing other goals aimed at improving people’s lives across the globe, to many his name is still synonymous with creating libraries. Beginning in 1886, Carnegie, and later Carnegie Corporation, in its early years, collectively spent $56 million to create 1,681 public libraries in nearly as many U.S. communities and 828 libraries in other parts of the world.

Carnegie Corporation of New York inherited its interest in libraries from its founder, who was president of the Corporation from its establishment in 1911 until 1919, the year of his death, and who initiated a library program at the foundation. During the early years, the program emphasized the construction of new library buildings across the country; between 1918 and 1925, though the Corporation continued to make some grants for library development, its efforts were primarily devoted to appraisal and evaluation of its library
program until then.

Beginning in 1926, the Corporation embarked on a large-scale expansion of its library-related efforts, aimed mainly at strengthening the library profession, but also at the enhancement of central services. For these programs, the Corporation spent an average of about $830,000 a year until 1941. Rural library services were greatly enhanced under Corporation grants in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the South. As to academic libraries, between 1930 and 1943, the Corporation appropriated nearly $2.5 million to more than 200 liberal arts colleges in a series of grants for library development and services and for the purchase of books for undergraduate reading.

Although the Corporation’s charter permitted it to make grants in the countries that are now known as the former British Commonwealth, it did not extend its library interests, except for public library buildings, beyond the Western Hemisphere until 1928, when, coinciding with the Corporation’s initiation of grants to countries in Africa, it began promoting the concept of free library services in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of Corporation funds went to the Central State Library of South Africa, which stimulated the development of free library services throughout the four provinces that made up the South Africa Union at that time. Substantial grants also went for the development of libraries and the purchase of books and training in Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and other Commonwealth countries.

After World War II, grants for library purposes received a decreasing share of the Corporation’s funds, except in Africa. More emphasis was placed on grants for central services provided by the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Library of Congress and other organizations and for new technologies and equipment aimed at facilitating library use.

In the past 25 years, the Corporation has not had a program of support for domestic libraries, with the exception of a few grants for specific purposes (see below).

With the reassessment of Corporation strategies under its current president, Vartan Gregorian, who was previously president of the New York Public Library in the
1990s, the Corporation decided to reform its International Development Program and support the revitalization of universities and libraries in Africa.

The foundation’s most recent library-related efforts have focused on sub-Saharan Africa with the goal of developing national libraries, revitalizing selected public libraries and consolidating the development of university libraries in countries and institutions that have strategic intervention programs funded by the Corporation. “The public library revitalization program supports the development of selected public libraries in order to create ‘model centers of excellence’ that help their system lobby for greater resources and public support of library services,” says Rookaya Bawa, a program officer in the Corporation’s International Development Program. Based on criteria such as relevance to the country and community, types of library services provided and strength of leadership, the Corporation, to date, has provided support to public library systems in Kenya, Botswana and South Africa.

In addition to its library program in Africa, the Corporation—while not maintaining a program of support for U.S. libraries—has continued to make special-initiative grants to domestic public libraries in recent years. Some highlights include: in 1999, the Corporation awarded $15 million to promote literacy, services to children and adolescents, preservation and special collections at The New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Borough Public Library and libraries in 22 other cities serving large, culturally diverse populations. The grants commemorated the centennial period of Andrew Carnegie’s gifts to establish public libraries in New York City and more than 1,350 other communities across America. Almost all of the grant recipients were originally funded by Andrew Carnegie between 1899 and 1906. All were chosen according to the size and diversity of population served, geographic spread and/or historical relationship to Andrew Carnegie, according to Corporation president Vartan Gregorian.

In May 2003, the Corporation made a $4.5 million grant to support the book collection at The New York Public Library and at the Brooklyn and Queens libraries in memory of those who lost their lives on September 11th. It was the second award made as part of the Corporation’s $10 million pledge to support the unmet needs of the communities in New York and Washington, D.C. following the terrorist attacks. Each book purchased through this challenge fund will have a bookplate commemorating those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, so that years from now, new readers will not forget the sacrifice made by so many in the name of America’s freedom, values and way of life. These grants were also made as a challenge to other funders with the hope that they will contribute to libraries and other New York City institutions and serve as a catalyst for other public-private partnerships.

Most recently, in June 2003, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Corporation made a one-time contribution to the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries for its administration costs. The mission of the Laura Bush Foundation is to support the education of the nation’s children by providing funds to update, extend and diversify the book and print collections of America’s school libraries.

Vol. 2 / No. 3 / Fall 2003