Thoughts on Philanthropy and Open Access in Public Libraries (Part 1)

I am taking an online course on the history of libraries this summer. I was recently given an assignment to analyze the changing functions of libraries in the 21st century. I used that assignment to share my thoughts on philanthropy and open access, and I feel like my final written product is appropriate for the theme of this blog. Keep in mind that much of this discussion is me “thinking out loud,” as I am still learning about open access myself. Unfortunately, the main article that I referenced for this assignment is stuck behind a paywall, ironically. So unless you have a pass to a university library/JSTOR, you’re out of luck. Here we go:

A wealthy and popular entrepreneur donates a large sum of money to their favorite charity. An alumnus of a prestigious school contributes funds to have a new dorm room built. Bill Gates donates millions of dollars to a library philanthropy program in 1997. Throughout U.S. history, philanthropy has been an important factor in the making of American culture. In a country that has maintained a lassiez-faire relationship with its government for most of its existence, the donations of America’s elite have contributed to the creation of universities, libraries, bike trails, sports teams, charities, and many other cultural institutions. Generally speaking, such philanthropic endeavors have received praise from the rest of American society, and today the most wealthy are almost expected to give up at least a part of their funds for such projects.

While still acknowledging that much good comes from philanthropy, my experiences in graduate school over the past year have challenged me to look at philanthropy with a more critical eye. In sum, large financial donations by wealthy elites oftentimes reflect the ideas, beliefs, and values of those making the donations, not those receiving the donations. When we hear of philanthropic endeavors, we must always ask ourselves, “what’s in it for those making the donation? How are they benefitting from this?” With regards to philanthropy and libraries, we must always ensure that the central promise of libraries–free and open access for all to the information they want–remains unchanged and untarnished, especially as the advent of new digital technologies challenges all librarians to become literate in new mediums of information sharing.

In her article on library philanthropy [again, paywalled. Sorry], Siobhan Stevenson analyzes the words and actions of Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who contributed his own personal funds to help build libraries throughout the United States and the world around the turn of the twentieth century. She then attempts to use this analysis to compare Carnegie to Microsoft co-creator Bill Gates, who has recently contributed large sums of money to help bring software and internet connectivity to libraries around the world. Stevenson takes what could be considered a “Marxist approach” to Carnegie’s “political economy.” She suggests that Carnegie’s donations reflect a larger effort amongst wealthy industrial capitalists to wield control over the labor class of America (237-240). These wealthy capitalists expressed great concern over who would have the authority to control American society in an age of rapid social and economic change: who would control the government? Who would control the factories? Who would define the parameters of “the labor question”? Who would control the types of information (and access to that information) in these newly built libraries?

Stevenson then points out that “the class battle” extended itself into the press and printed word. Capitalists like Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and the Vanderbilt family took to writing to promote their views on capitol and labor. Labor leaders also took to writing, with roughly seventeen monthly journals, 400 weeklies, and several pro-labor daily publications in circulation by the 1880s (241).

Seen in this light, Carnegie’s speeches at his library dedications take on a deeper meaning, one that reflects the tensions of the debate on industrial capitalism during that time period. By building libraries, Carnegie hoped to increase the sharing of knowledge, information, and literacy throughout America, but only through specifically defined terms set by Carnegie himself. At a library dedication speech in 1889, he explained that the laboring classes could benefit from a better understanding of the “economic laws which hold the capitalist in their relentless grasp.” Furthermore, “in any questions of mechanics or any question of chemistry, any question of furnace practice, you will find the records of the world at your disposal.” Such information, Carnegie believed, was more important than studying “an ignorant past,” i.e. Greek or Latin language or culture, “which are no more practical use than Choctaw” (244-245). Carnegie hoped his libraries would help foster a more informed and literate populace, but the definition of “literacy” became one of understanding economic laws and machinery so as to understand, acknowledge, and comply with Carnegie’s capitalist ideology. It would be very interesting to analyze the library collections of a Carnegie library at the turn of the twentieth century. Did their collections include works from prominent labor leaders? Did these libraries truly create a culture of open access to all information for its clients?

Without explicitly saying so, Stevenson concludes her article by suggesting that the recent philanthropic endeavors of Bill Gates towards public libraries around the world require a more critical analysis and discussion from librarians (252-253). By providing additional funds to install computers and internet connectivity to public libraries around the world, does the Gates foundation actually promote open access in public libraries, or are there ulterior motives at play?

Part 2 comes tomorrow…

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4 responses

  1. Hi Nick,
    This post reminds me of a discussion in one of my classes at Missouri State. Carnegie’s philanthropy has to be considered in relation to the wages and benefits he paid to his workers. What good is a library if your paycheck is too small to live on? It was assumed that if you were smart enough to get rich then you knew what was best for everyone else. Maybe the people should be paid higher wages and then, through their government, decide if they want to be taxed for public amenities like libraries. I’me typing this in a hurry, hope it makes sense.

    1. Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. I understand exactly what you are saying, and you make a very good point that Stevenson address in her article (which, by the way, is titled “The Political Economy of Andrew Carnegie’s Library Philanthropy, with a Reflection on its Relevance to the Philanthropic Work of Bill Gates,” Library & Information History 26 no. 4, December 2010, pp. 237-257). She makes the following remarks on 245-246:

      “Carnegie’s statement, ‘In these days of transition and struggle between capitol and labour, to no better purpose can you devote a few of your spare hours than to the study of…’ completely ignores labour’s struggle to achieve the eight-hour day. Indeed, following the strike in Homestead, labour historian Leon Wolfe noted that ‘after the the 1892 strike the twelve-hour day, seven days per week, with a twenty-four hour stretch every second week’ was the norm at Carnegie’s mill.”

      That’s brutal, and it seems to defeat the purpose of building libraries for the poor. Such “philanthropy” may have been better directed towards bettering the working conditions of Carnegie’s workforce. Thanks again for the comment.

  2. […] in my writing, especially a recent instance in which I attempted to write about open access (see here and here). As I was preparing to post Dr. Kelly’s essay to the blog, I tried to write a […]

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