“The man who dies rich dies in disgrace.”

And because of that belief, the American public library system exists today. Andrew Carnegie–the American steel magnate who sold his company to J.P. Morgan and became the world’s richest man in 1901–gave far more than half of that wealth away in support of a grand idea:

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie, hero of readers in communities across America.

Giving people opportunities to advance themselves.

Carnegie gave away $350 million dollars, $60 million of which went directly toward 2,509 libraries around the world, 1,700 of them in the U.S.! Carnegie believed in helping people better themselves and he felt free access to a library of resources in books was the best gift he could share around the world. He practiced what he preached: “In bestowing charity the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.”

Heroes don’t always have to wear capes or swing swords or jump into the fray to save the day; sometimes they simply give what they can, almost all they can, to make many days better for many others. Steel and industry magnates and other powerful entities have risen and fallen in the 138 years since the first Carnegie Library opened its shelves to all. The quantity and flow of information and entertainment has changed and grown immensely in that timeframe. What has not fallen or fallen away is the importance of the public library and its offerings to their communities, and the dreams and opportunities the free access to knowledge has given individuals, communities, and our nation.

Andrew Carnegie’s name may not be readily on the tongues of those asked to name great American heroes, but without him there most assuredly would be less American heroes.

San Antonio, Texas, Carnegie Library (1903)
San Antonio, Texas, Carnegie Library (1903)