American History Podcasts

Andrew Carnegie and New York’s public libraries: How a Gilded Age gift transformed America

EPISODE 308 In the final decades of his life, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie — one of the richest Americans to ever live — began giving his money away.

The Scots American had worked his way up from a railroad telegraph office to amass an unimaginable fortune, acquired in a variety of industries — railroads, bridge building, iron and steel.

Andrew Carnegie, 1913. (Library of Congress)

In the age of the monopoly, Gilded Age moguls often made their money in ways we might consider unethical and illegal today. But Carnegie’s view of his wealth was quite different than that of his rarefied clubhouse peers.

Carnegie devoted his latter years to philanthropy, primarily devoting his energies to the creation of libraries across the country.

Researchers at the Carnegie 135th Street library in 1938. (Courtesy The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

By the late 19th century, the New York City area already had dozens of libraries and reading rooms throughout the future five boroughs. But they were certainly not welcoming to every person. And those circulating libraries that were available were limited and woefully overburdened.

Carnegie’s unprecedented financial gift to the city would jump start the city’s nascent library systems (the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library) and broaden their reach into communities with the development of dozens of new branch libraries.

The Red Hook Carnegie library, 1915. Unfortunately this branch library was damaged in a 1946 fire and demolished. (Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library)

In this episode, we are joined by Adwoa Adusei and Krissa Corbett Cavouras, hosts of the Brooklyn Public Library podcast Borrowed, who give the Bowery Boys a tour of one of Carnegie’s most popular New York City libraries.

In the winter of 1908, thousands stood in line to visit the new Brownsville branch library. How do treasured structures like Brownsville continue to serve the needs of the neighborhood in the 21st century? Are Carnegie libraries, most of which still stand, prepared for the future?


After listening to our show, head on over to the Borrowed podcast to hear the other half of the story. Greg and Tom make an appearance on their show, speaking further with Krissa and Adwoa about Carnegie’s legacy in New York City, in the United States and around the world.

Subscribe to the Borrowed podcast or listen to it straight from here:

THE TAKEOUT — A bonus after-show podcast for those who support us on Patreon. Greg and Tom share their experiences with Carnegie libraries. And Tom unravels a childhood mystery in the pages of a 1908 book. Subscribe at the Five Points level and above to receive this bonus show.

Tom with Adwoa and Krissa at the Brownsville Brooklyn branch. Note the high ceilings and the library heating system!

The Brownsville branch of the Brooklyn Public Library which opened in 1908.

Outside the Brownsville Stone Avenue children’s library, 1930.

Brown Brothers/New York Public Library

A Carnegie branch library in Richmond Hill, Queens. Like most local Carnegie libraries, this one’s still around too.

Courtesy HDC

The Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library, pictured here in 1917. It actually predates the Carnegie library, the most lavish example of a building from the New York Free Circulating Library days.

New York Public LIbrary


After listening to our show on the Holland Tunnel, check out these episodes with similar themes:

Carnegie Hall would probably be Carnegie’s best known gift to New York City, aimed not to the working class but to the city’s elite. By the early 20th century, however, it would be a stage for all New Yorkers … and for a variety of presentations

The Rise of the Fifth Avenue Mansions: Even as Carnegie was giving away his money, he comforted himself within a glorious Fifth Avenue mansion on 51st Street, literally across the street from Vanderbilts and Astors. From the Borrowed podcast: The story of the Brownsville Stone Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, one of the first dedicated children’s libraries in the United States.

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