Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

The Carnegie Library, er… Carnegie Libraries, in Canada


American Industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie used his wealth to promote education and literacy for all. A portion of his fortune was used to construct 125 libraries in Canada

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” – Andrew Carnegie

The wealthy American industrialist of the late 1800s did not speak the words for others to enact. Andrew Carnegie gave his time, inspirations and money to provide libraries for his own countrymen and then looked north. Due to his generosity, 125 libraries were constructed to advance literacy and education across Canada.

Carnegie’s Generous Philanthropy

Earning his fortunes in the railway, iron and oil, the young immigrant from Scotland was affluent by the age of 30. He then invested in the steel industry, opening the Carnegie Steel Company in 1889. The industrial age was in a boom; Carnegie sold his company to another industrialist, JP Morgan, for a whopping $480 million in 1901, making him one of the richest men in America. Able to put his philanthropic goals into action, Carnegie spent $350 million of his own money for the pure benefit of others.

Education and Literacy for All

Education and literacy were most important to Andrew Carnegie, and one of the ways that all people could gain education was through free libraries. (Often, at that time, patrons needed to buy a membership or had to pay a fee to use the library.) Carnegie held that, “he could provide the public with the tools necessary to succeed, regardless of their socio-economic background,” said the Ontario Government’s Ministry of Culture. Between Carnegie and his business partner, James Bertram, a formula was established to distribute grant money for libraries. Applicants were required to:

  • Prove the need for a public library in their town
  • Provide land for the building
  • Provide 10% of the building cost annually to pay for operations
  • Use the building only as a library.

The grants proved popular with towns and cities alike. Around the world, Carnegie constructed 2,509 library facilities. In Canada, 125 libraries were built with Carnegie funding, 111 of those in Ontario. The average grant, said Ontario’s Ministry of Culture, was $10,000 (in today’s dollars, about $650,000) and the total spent in Canada in those early dollars was the liberal amount of $2,556,600. Some libraries received larger grants. The first Winnipeg Public Library received $75,000, opening in October 1905. The Toronto Public Library system was granted the massive amount of $487,500 for a main library and nine branches, plus one university library, all built between 1909 and 1916.

Opposed to Carnegie Grants

The grants to libraries did not go unchallenged by Canadians, especially in Toronto. The issue of Carnegie’s “heartless handling” of strikers at his steel mill in Pennsylvania caused him to be “demonized by many labour organizers across the continent who regarded his library funds as ‘blood money,’” according to Kevin Plummer, author of Andrew Carnegie’s Toronto Legacy” in The Torontoist, October 2008. The matter was eventually resolved and the library grants were accepted.

Many of the Carnegie libraries were large, stately constructions, built of limestone or brick, with beautiful Greek and Roman style arches and columns, and some, such as the Winnipeg library, with gleaming marble staircases. An innovation of Carnegie was opening the stacks to patrons. Previously, library book stacks were secured behind the circulation desk. A request was made to the librarian and she would retrieve the book for the patron. Carnegie thought that the stacks should not be closed to patrons. Visitors should be able to see and touch the books and make their own selections – the system library patrons still enjoy today, thanks to Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie Libraries Disappearing

As time marched on, the Carnegie libraries of Canada have changed. Of the 111 libraries in Ontario, 63 are still in use. Others have been transformed from libraries filled with books into offices and other uses; some sadly have been torn down.

Through the Carnegie Institute, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the inspirations of Andrew Carnegie continue to influence and enhance lives around the globe. From New Brunswick to British Columbia and north to the Yukon, a large number of Canadians enjoyed the educational benefits of the free library supported by the big-hearted philanthropist. Andrew Carnegie died at age 84 of pneumonia on August 11, 1919.

“Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” – Andrew Carnegie

Visit St. Mary’s Public Library in Southern Ontario for a view of a magnificent Carnegie Library in action. (More beautiful architectural photos of the Library will be available on that site soon.)


Historicist: Andrew Carnegie’s Toronto Legacy,” by Kevin Plummer, The Torontoist, October 2008.

Andrew Carnegie,” Ontario’s Carnegie Libraries, Ministry of Culture, Government of Ontario.

Toronto’s Carnegie Libraries,” About the Library, Toronto Public Library Site.

Winnipeg’s Carnegie Library Celebrates100th Anniversary,The Manitoba Historical Society, October 18, 2005.


Photo, public domain, from Library and Archives Canada at Collections Canada,
This Canadian History article first appeared on                                       ©  Susanna McLeod

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