Some of Wales’ most historic and architecturally stunning libraries carry the name ‘Carnegie’ above their doors, but many readers pass beneath these ageing inscriptions without any knowledge of the role played by Scots-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in funding their existence.

A new book – written by Ralph A Griffiths, and published by the University of Wales Press – aims to correct that by lifting a lid on the stories behind Wales’ 35 Carnegie libraries, situated across the country.

Born in Dunfermline near Fife, Scotland in 1835, Andrew Carnegie – Andy to his family and friends – was raised in poverty.

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His family moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania to seek a better life, and it was here that the young Carnegie worked his way up – through jobs as a ‘bobbin boy’ in a textile mill, a telegraph messenger and a company secretary – to begin a series of entrepreneurial investments that would make him, according to fellow billionaire JP Morgan, the richest man in the world.

Much of Carnegie’s wealth was created through investment in America’s railroads and steel industry, and Griffiths’ book details how the philanthropist – a proud Scotsman – maintained links with Britain through his substantial giving.

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This included what the author paints as something of a soft spot for Wales, which had close ties to Pennsylvania, where many Welsh Quakers had emigrated.

The Welsh Tract, to the west of Philadelphia, was founded in 1687, and retains many Welsh place names to this day.

Ralph Griffiths makes clear that Carnegie’s giving was underpinned by “a personal philosophy of philanthropy... publicised in his writings”.

The National Wales: Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie

His most influential work on the subject was The Gospel of Wealth, in which Carnegie insisted: “charity [is] not an end in itself but rather should ‘help those who help themselves’” – a principle that many will recognise in popular viewpoints today.

In his book, Griffiths also repeatedly makes comparisons between “church and chapel buildings in Wales” and Carnegie libraries, which were “built close to the heart of their communities, acting as community centres and meeting places… freely available havens for quiet contemplation or self-improvement”.

If the cultural and social parallels between chapel and library are clear from this description, the book’s many illustrations also serve to underline architectural similarities.

Trecynon Library shares the vernacular style of thousands of simple Welsh chapels, as does that in Church Village near Pontypridd.

The National Wales: The library in Church VillageThe library in Church Village

Others feature the central clock tower design of many Victorian school buildings and, in the case of the striking ‘butterfly’ design of Cardiff’s Cathays Library, look more like cathedrals, monuments to reading, culture and self-improvement.

Carnegie believed the biggest impact his millions could have was if he invested in educating the masses, and altogether he helped fund more than 2,500 libraries worldwide, the vast majority in the United States, Canada, the UK and Ireland.

Unsurprisingly, Carnegie libraries in Wales are concentrated in the industrial and populous south east, with three in Cardiff – at Whitchurch, Canton and Cathays – and an even larger cluster in the Merthyr valley.

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Aberfan, Abercanaid, Penydarren, Dowlais, Treharris and Troedyrhiw were all beneficiaries of Carnegie, in addition to Merthyr Tydfil itself.

But Llandrindod Wells in Radnorshire, Criccieth on the Llyn Peninsula and Coedpoeth near Wrexham all opened Carnegie libraries too, along with a string of places on the north coast – including Bangor, Llandudno, Rhyl and Flint.

In some places, like Mountain Ash, Carnegie’s philanthropy met resistance from local authorities where miners’ institutes and libraries were already flourishing thanks not to the rich, but the faithful investment of the relatively poor.

The National Wales: Cathays library in CardiffCathays library in Cardiff

But for the most part communities were pleased to work in partnership with the benefactor whose philosophy meant match funding was to be found locally, to provide the land for each library and a sustainable plan for its ongoing use.

Carnegie libraries were designed to become the heart of the communities they served – and despite the savage cuts to public services and local authority budgets during the last decade and more, many still have this important function today, often recast as ‘hubs’ for a range of social services, but still focused on the core function of lending books, as well as offering a free-to-enter public space where people of all backgrounds can sit and read in peace.

Current library use in Wales has dipped below half of the population in recent years, with Welsh Government statistics from 2016 indicating 46% of the population use their local library, rising to just over 51% in the 15-24 age group.

Despite a marked decline from the heyday of the free public library – attributed variously to reduced local authority budgets and the rise of information technology – usage figures remain impressive: more than 10m books borrowed in a year, 1.5m hours of free internet access, and 13.5m visits overall.

Carnegie’s legacy clearly lives on, and Griffiths’ book is a fitting tribute.

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