What would you do if you were the world’s richest man? For Andrew Carnegie, this was no academic question. His answer: “the duty of the man of wealth is to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer … to produce the most beneficial results for the community.”
For Carnegie, that meant building public libraries. He was deeply respectful of education and, especially, of books. In his words, “It is the mind that makes the body rich.” As a boy, he enjoyed the generosity of a local man who opened his personal library to the town’s children. As Carnegie later described the experience, “The future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came, a new volume could be obtained.” As he concluded, “The taste for reading is one of the most precious possessions of life … I should much rather be instrumental in bringing to the working man or woman this taste than mere dollars.”
By the time of his death on August 11, 1919, Carnegie had funded 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. Of those, 1,679 were free, public libraries in 1,412 communities across the United States, most in small towns. Further, Carnegie’s example inspired other philanthropists to do likewise; between 1896 and 1925, the number of U.S. public libraries rose from around 900 to nearly 3,900.
The legacy of Carnegie’s libraries demonstrates another benefit of capitalism: It promotes widespread education by producing enough wealth to found and fund educational institutions. Our future religious leaders need to understand this aspect of the morality of a free market; I thank you for the support that makes it possible.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico
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