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Andrew Carnegie was once the richest man in the world. He was dirt poor when he came, as a child, with his family to the U.S. from Scotland, in 1848. He would go on to build a steel empire and spend his last days as a philanthropist. Sixty million dollars of his wealth went to fund a system of nearly 1,700 public libraries across this country.

To launch a summer series on libraries, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has this story on the library legacy of Andrew Carnegie.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: This is Washington's oldest library, and a proud one it is. It's a beautiful beaux arts building - carved. Carnegie gave $300,000 for this building, open in 1903 to women, children, all races. Blacks here remember when it was the only place downtown where they could use the bathroom.

During the Depression, D.C.'s Carnegie Library was called the intellectual bread line. No money, so you came here to feed your brain. Washington writer Paul Dickson, author of "The Library in America," says this marble palace was an early and imposing capital institution.

PAUL DICKSON: This went in, of course, well before the monumental limestone and marble buildings of Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue. So this was one of the first really beautiful, public buildings.

STAMBERG: Carnegie libraries are still the best buildings in many towns. Over the years, some have been expanded or torn down. And in addition to books and computers, Carnegie libraries find new ways to serve the community.

RITA BANTAM: People start checking out the certain size cake pans - or different, fancy ones - because they don't have them at home.

STAMBERG: Rita Bantam is director of the Woodbine, Iowa, Carnegie Public Library.

STAMBERG: Free cake pans in the public library.

BANTAM: Yes.

STAMBERG: Now, what do cake pans and knitting classes have to do with a library?

BANTAM: Well, offering a service that people need. It brings people into the library.

STAMBERG: Andrew Carnegie gave $7,500 to Woodbine. That paid for the 1908 building. The towns had to raise money for books, salaries, maintenance. Before Carnegie, Rita Bantam says the library was in an unusual section of Woodbine's town hall.

BANTAM: It was over the jail. They had to close the library when the jail was occupied.

STAMBERG: From jail to cake pans, public libraries are embedded in their communities. In South Carolina, the Union County Carnegie Library - named best small library in America, a few years back - gets Ronald McDonald to lure kids into summer reading programs. Director Ben Loftis says there were subscription libraries in South Carolina before 1903, when his was built with a $10,000 Carnegie grant. But this was the first public library.

BEN LOFTIS: So it went from being for just the wealthy, elite landowners and planters to actually being a service for the entire county that everybody had access to.

STAMBERG: It was pioneering - public and free. Those were the visionary keystones of Andrew Carnegie's library mission; a mission born in Allegheny City, Pa. A bobbin boy in a textile mill - he would fill the bobbins with thread, and oil them for the machines - Andy was determined to improve his lot. He couldn't pay a $2 subscription for a library available only to apprentices.

DAVID NASAW: Well, he said: I'm a young man; I'm a working man...

STAMBERG: This is Carnegie biographer David Nasaw.

NASAW: ...I'm not officially an apprentice. I can't afford to buy books. I need to use this library.

STAMBERG: He sent a letter to the library administrator, who turned him down flat. So 17-year-old Andy got the letter published in The Pittsburgh Dispatch.

NASAW: He made his case so well that the administrator backed off immediately. And the library was opened to young, working men as well as apprentices. He got what he wanted.

STAMBERG: He usually did. Quick, smart and self-educated, the little Scotsman from Pittsburgh went from bobbins to telegraphs, to railroads, to iron and steel. In 1901, when he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for almost half a billion dollars, it became part of U.S. Steel; and Andrew Carnegie became the world's richest man, and then gave it away - a total of $350 million.

Was he the Bill Gates of his day, then?

NASAW: I think Bill Gates would very much like to be known as the Carnegie of his day.

STAMBERG: In 1889, he wrote an article called "The Gospel of Wealth," in which he spelled out his views on philanthropy. Here, he is reading an excerpt.

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ANDREW CARNEGIE: In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.

STAMBERG: The rich should give so the poor could improve their own lives and thus, the lives of the society. Giving was a code of honor.

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CARNEGIE: The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.

STAMBERG: Carnegie biographer David Nasaw says in his 30s, the steel master decided he was merely the shepherd of his wealth.

NASAW: It is his responsibility to give it back, to return it to the community because the community - all of those men and women who contribute to the making of Carnegie steel; the mothers who feed their children; the day laborer; the all, large community - is responsible for making this wealth. And they're the ones who have to get it back.

STAMBERG: So public libraries became instruments of change - not luxuries but rather, necessities; important institutions as vital as police, fire houses, public schools. Now, Andrew Carnegie was a complicated man: brilliant, charming, generous and brutal. Another Carnegie biographer, Les Standiford - his book is called "Meet You in Hell" - says the industrialist presided over what is considered this country's most bitter labor dispute.

LES STANDIFORD: The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, in which he and Henry Clay Frick conspired to mercilessly beat down the steelworkers who were striking for better pay and better working conditions, it stands to this day as the worst labor conflict in American history.

STAMBERG: Increase our wages, the workers said. What good is a book to a man who works 12 hours a day, six days a week? Biographer David Nasaw says Andrew Carnegie thought he knew better, and replied to his critics this way...

NASAW: There are working people here who believe that I should have given you extra wages. But if I had raised your wages, you would have spent that money by buying a better cut of meat, or more drink for your dinner. He said: But what you needed, though you didn't know it, was my libraries and concert halls. And that's what I'm giving to you.

STAMBERG: And so he did; 1,689 public libraries - temples of learning, ambition, aspiration for towns and cities throughout the United States.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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