Let There Be Light
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie built the first Carnegie library in his
hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1883. Above the building’s
sandstone entrance were the carved words, “Let There Be Light.”
From 1899 to 1914, Carnegie’s charitable foundations and trusts shined
that light, along with $896,800, to build twenty-three public libraries in
fifteen Kentucky counties and four additional libraries on college
campuses. Today that amount is equivalent to $28.9 million.
There will not be another Andrew Carnegie to lead the way in fostering
public library growth in Kentucky. He did, however, leave a blueprint of
sorts for public library advocates to follow.
Carnegie came from a laboring family and fighting for working men’s
rights was in their genes. With the invention of power looms, the
Carnegie family was forced to migrate to America to find work. They
settled in Pittsburgh, where twelve-year-old Andrew went to work as a
bobbin boy in a cotton factory. Using books lent him by a friend,
Andrew Carnegie began educating himself—spending every waking
hour he was not working reading borrowed books. Two years later, he
became secretary to a superintendent in the Pennsylvania Railway
Company. He soon replaced his boss and began accumulating stock in
the Pullman Sleeping Car Company, Keystone Bridge Company, Union
Iron Mills, Superior Rail Mill and Blast Furnace and the Pennsylvania
He founded the Carnegie Steel Company in 1872. Eight years later,
largely due to Carnegie’s efforts, American steel production exceeded
that of Britain for the first time. In 1900, his shares of Carnegie Steel
stock exceeded $25 million. A year later, he sold his newly formed US
Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million.
Carnegie never forgot the man who lent him books to further his
education. Between 1883 and 1929, Carnegie funded 2,509 libraries:
1,689 in the United States; 600 in Britain and Ireland; 156 in Canada,
and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean and Fiji.
Carnegie believed in helping those who helped themselves and
developed a formula for building public libraries. Each town/city that
received a Carnegie library grant had to contribute ten percent of their
library’s annual funding, supply the building site and provide free
service to the public.
The buildings were constructed from a template developed by Carnegie
associates and their interiors were light and airy. Varying in size, most
Carnegie libraries were easily identified by their architecture and were
built to last.
Public library patrons became so attached to their Carnegie libraries that,
even when the original buildings were unable to meet the public need,
city and towns found other uses for their beloved structures. Some are
history and arts centers, a police station, food pantry, community centers
and a literacy foundation. Carnegie Libraries were, for the most part,
located in urban areas leaving Kentucky’s smaller counties without
desperately needed service. In 1896, the Kentucky Federation of
Woman’s Clubs initiated the Pack Horse Librarian program to reach
those isolated in rural areas. Each horse carried two wooden cases
containing sixty books each. By 1911, Pack Horse Librarians traveled
into eighty-two Kentucky counties reaching a population of 1.2 million.
Berea College began sending horse-drawn book wagons into eastern
Kentucky in 1916, reaching seventy-five families and six schools with a
circulation of 1,100. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
revived the Pack Horse Librarian program. In 1943, when the program
ended, 1,000 Pack Horse Librarians were reaching 1.5 million patrons in
Andrew Carnegie’s light was still shining but just barely. Despite all
efforts, eighty percent of rural Kentuckians lacked library service. In
1952, Kentucky author Jesse Stuart challenged Friends of Kentucky
Libraries to supply each county with a bookmobile. Two years later,
Friends purchased 100 bookmobiles, each with its own collection; raised
local support for their maintenance; assisted in obtaining the first state
support for libraries, and 2.5 million books were circulated during the
bookmobiles’ first year of operation. Kentucky’s public libraries’ future
In 2018, according to the Kentucky Department of Libraries and
Archives (KDLA), 2.56 Kentuckians, 57.52 percent of the
commonwealth’s population, used their local public library. Total book
circulation reached 29,039,906. Patrons accessed their libraries’
computers in 6,019,607 sessions. Attendance at Children’s programs
was 1,257,346. Program attendance of young adults and adults reached
In 2020. Kentucky desperately needs civic leaders and organizations to
shine Carnegie’s light on the irreplaceable community services and
educational opportunities offered by the commonwealth’s 119 public
libraries. Aside from supplying patrons with books, Kentucky’s public
libraries provide computers and instructions of how to use them,
electronic books, music and movies, directional education, public
forums and lectures, special programs for children and seniors and the
dissemination of a variety of needed information found no place else.
The doors Andrew Carnegie opened and the light of learning he fostered
continues to draw patrons to their local public libraries.
In 2018, according to the Kentucky Department of Libraries and
Archives (KDLA), 2.56 million Kentuckians, 57.52 percent of the
population, used their public library. Total book circulation reached
29,039,906. Patrons accessed their libraries’ computers in 6,019,607
sessions. Attendance at Children’s Programs was 1,257,346. Program
attendance of young adults and adults at their libraries reached 651,942.
With the legislature cutting 2020 state funding for public libraries, a
number of small libraries in rural counties will have to close their doors
to patrons who’s only Internet access and lending facilities are their
public libraries. Ballard and Carlisle counties operate a joint library and
their 2018 per capita expenditure, for each of their citizens, was $1.60.
Carter County’s per capita budget was $3.14; Elliott, $3.87, Knott,
$4.61, and Hickman, $6.34.
Given the commonwealth’s current financial crisis, restoring Kentucky
public libraries’ state funding is in question. Friends of Kentucky
Libraries, other advocates and private individuals encounter an even
more serious challenge than that issued by Jesse Stuart in 1952.
The door is open for Friends of Kentucky Libraries, the nucleus of
Carnegie’s plan, to gather their supporters, march forward and
advancement efforts to keep the commonwealth’s public libraries viable,
thriving institutions that provide much needed services.
“Let There Be Light.”
Betty B. Ellison
(Mrs. Ellison for a former Friends of Kentucky Libraries board
A LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
During this trying time, I hope all of us everywhere are stopping to count our blessings.
A pandemic should be a significant emotional event for all and a great time to evaluate whatand who is really important to us. If secure in one’s faith, life is not really scary, nor is the prospect of one’s demise. What should be scary is not knowing who and what you are and not having anyone to love on this earth.
In America we love to disagree but regardless of what is said we defend the right to say it because we are a proud and fiercely independent country of individuals who love our freedom to express ourselves, even if often ridiculous things are said and possibly done.
How do we know people? Not by what they say so much as what they do. During this weird time on earth it is wonderful to see folks helping others. That is what God intended. “Love thy neighbor as thy self” should always be the mantra for all of us. I love hearing of random acts of kindness and being reminded by “Just Be Kind” signs throughout our community.
Life is extremely rewarding and not scary when you are doing good deeds to benefit others. Please call your friends and neighbors and check on them. They will get such pleasure from your calls. Do not forget that family and friends are the real treasures on earth and the real heroes now are those in the front lines during this pandemic– the doctors, nurses, EMS personnel, and the army of folks tending to our medical needs and at times paying the ultimate price for doing so. Please pray for the families who have lost loved ones and do your part by being kind to everyone during this pandemic. Life is way too short. Please do something nice today for someone other than yourself. That way you will enjoy life much more than you ever thought possible. PEACE.
The Friends of Kentucky Libraries is a nonprofit organization made up of individuals and local Friends chapters and local boards of trustees who support and celebrate Kentucky’s libraries.
– a network of library supporters from across the state sharing ideas and news
– a source of assistance for creating or revitalizing your local Friends of the Library Chapter
– a unified voice to advocate for your library and all Kentucky Libraries
The Fall 2019 Survey of Friends of Kentucky Libraries Chapters is in, and lots of information and ideas for Friends groups around the Commonwealth. Click here to see the survey results.
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