Andrew Carnegie & James Bertram

1913 portrait of Andrew Carnegie.
Photographer: Theodore C Marceau.
Source: Library of Congress.

Andrew Carnegie (November 25, 1835-August 11, 1919)

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline Scotland to William, a linen damask weaver, and Margaret Morrison Carnegie, the daughter of the local activist.1 When Carnegie turned eight, his parents, whose financial situation was never very secure, had paid his enrollment at a school that focused on “memorization and recitation.”2 Carnegie’s formal education came to an end five years later when in 1848 his family immigrated to the Pittsburgh area, joining some of his mother’s family there.

In Pittsburgh, Carnegie was able to supplement his learning through the weekly use of the personal library of Colonel James Anderson, who allowed Saturday access to the working boys of the city.  As one of those working boys, Carnegie first worked as a bobbin boy, and then a telegraph boy, but ultimately, he was fortunate to have his talents and hard work appreciated by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, especially during the Civil War.  By the end of the war, Carnegie capitalized on investments made while working for the railroad, and he began investing in ironworks, founding the Keystone Bridge Company (which built bridges across the Mississippi into Iowa), and later, the Carnegie Brothers Steel Company, which then became the Carnegie Steel Company.  In 1901, he sold his steel company for $480 million.

Acting on his belief that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” Carnegie began his philanthropic giving as early as 1879, when he provided funds for the establishment of a public library back in his hometown of Dunfermline.3 In his book, An American Four-in-hand in Britain, Carnegie recorded a triumphant procession through England and Scotland, culminating in his mother laying the cornerstone for the library in July 1881.  Obliquely celebrating their roles on that day, Carnegie wrote “for whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.”4 By 1889, Carnegie published his recommendations on the dispersal of the enormous funds in two articles, “Wealth,” and the “Best Fields for Philanthropy,” that were first published in the North American Review.  The second article listed the seven areas worthy of his attention as: 1) to found or enlarge a university, 2) to found Free Libraries, 3) to establish hospitals or laboratories, 4) to present Public Parks, 5) to open Public Halls with Organs, 6) to erect Swimming Baths, and 7) to build Churches.5

In his section on Free Libraries, Carnegie wrote: “The result of my own study of the question, What is the best gift that can be given to a community? is that a free library occupies the first place, provided that the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution, as much a part of the city property as its public schools, and indeed, an adjunct to these.  It is no doubt, possible that my own personal experience may have led me to value a free library beyond all other forms of beneficence.  When I was a boy in Pittsburg [sic], Colonel Anderson, of Allegheny, — a name I can never speak without feelings of devotional gratitude, — opened his little library of four hundred books to boys.  Every Saturday afternoon he was in attendance himself at his house to exchange books.  No one but he who has felt it can know the intense longing with which the arrival of Saturday was awaited, that a new book might be had.  My brother and Mr. Phipps, who have been my principal business partners through life, shared with me Colonel Anderson’s precious generosity, and it was when reveling in these treasures that I resolved, if ever wealth came to me, that it should be used to establish free libraries, that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to that noble man….No millionaire will go far wrong in his search for one best forms for the use of his surplus who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it.  John Bright’s words should ring in his ear: ‘It is impossible for any man to bestow a greater benefit upon a young man than to give him access to books in a free library.’  Closely allied to the library, and where possible, attached to it, there should be rooms for an art gallery and museum and a hall for such lectures and instruction…”6

Between 1881 and 1896, roughly the time frame he designated as his “retail period” of library grants, Carnegie made offers for libraries to four communities in the Pittsburgh area that included amenities such as galleries, music halls, and swimming pools.  Included in this “retail’ period was his first grant to a community west of the Mississippi, the hometown of Senator James F. Wilson.  Wilson, from Fairfield, Iowa, capitalized on his personal relationship with Carnegie, and in 1892, procured a $30,000 grant, which was quickly increased to $40,000 for the erection of an imposing public library building which included an auditorium and museum space.

Carnegie’s second phase of library grants, the “wholesale” period is dated to 1901, although two other Iowa communities received library funding prior to that time: Davenport (1899) and Ottumwa (1900).  During the period from 1901 to 1917, 101 other Iowa communities pursued and received Carnegie funding for libraries, although five communities decided not to accept the funding.  Although Carnegie wrote an occasional letter for funding during this period, the bulk of the correspondence was conducted by his secretary, James Bertram.  It was during the “wholesale” period that seven of Iowa’s colleges and universities also received Carnegie money to build library buildings.  In 1901, the first academic grant to Iowa also appeared to have been made on the basis of a personal relationship between Carnegie and David B. Henderson as there is no record of the gift in the records of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  The grant was made to Upper Iowa University, the alma mater of Henderson, a Scot, who had served as the first Speaker of the House of Representatives from west of the Mississippi from 1899 to 1902.7 Spurred on by the examples of these early gifts, the communities in Iowa received the fourth highest number of grants in the United States.



James Bertram (March 17, 1872 – October 23, 1934)

James Bertram, a Scot, became Carnegie’s secretary in 1897, and he faithfully served Carnegie and later, the Carnegie Corporation, for the rest of his life.8 Bertram served as the personal secretary (his correspondence was often signed “P. Secretary,”), and he was the primary individual who interacted with the communities who requested funds for the erection of public libraries. Like Carnegie, Bertram was a proponent of simplified spelling, and his communications with the communities, which were written with the “new” form of spelling, were always very short, and often not very clear. His style of communication was often found to be frustrating to the communities who were in the situation of trying to fulfill requirements for receiving funds for a library building that were not always well understood.

Bertram took his position as the intermediary to Carnegie’s funds very seriously. He was the one who had decided that the population of the community should determine the funding for the grants and set the figure at two dollars per person, and he worked to ascertain that the population numbers reported by the towns were correct.9 Toward the end of the grant period (1911-1917), these numbers often created difficulties for the communities, especially as prices for buildings rose due to World War I, and the allotment didn’t change. However, Bertram held costs down for the libraries because of the excesses of the earlier buildings. The domes, marble, and fancy architectural embellishments of the early library buildings didn’t provide the space needed for library services. To counteract those architectural enhancements, by about 1908, Bertram mandated that communities submit their building plans for approval prior to the release of the funds. By 1911, Bertram had also developed a pamphlet that was sent to all inquiring communities. The pamphlet, “Notes on the Erection of Library Bildings,” included two pages of text emphasizing the practical nature of the building, and six diagrammatic layouts for libraries, which impacted about 25 of Iowa’s libraries.10 Finally, in 1914 to prevent overruns on the buildings, Bertram began to include language in the grant letter which required the community to build for the amount given – “It should be noted that the amount indicated is to cover the cost of the Library bilding complete, redy for occupancy and the purpose intended.”11 With the addition of this sentence, Bertram carefully guarded Carnegie’s funds, and yet his restrictions negatively impacted several of the Iowa communities requesting grants after 1915.


                                                                                                                                                               Text by SLS

1 David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), serves as the primary source here.
2 Ibid, 17.
3 Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays (New York: The Century Co. 1901), 19.
4 Andrew Carnegie, An American Four-in-hand in Britain (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), 283.
5 Andrew Carnegie, “The Best Fields for Philanthropy,” North American Review v.149, n.397 (December 1889), 688-691.
6 Ibid.
7 Timothy B. Smith, “Henderson, David Bremner,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2009), Web. 1 May 2017.
8 George Bobinski, Carnegie Libraries (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969), 24-32. See also Frank P. Hill, James Bertram: An Appreciation (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1936).
9 David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 606.
10 Abigail Van Slyck, Free to All; Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 33-40.
11 Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, reel 11, correspondence to Garner, Iowa, June 11, 1914.