Historicist: Andrew Carnegie's Toronto Legacy

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Historicist: Andrew Carnegie’s Toronto Legacy

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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Photo of the Central Reference Library at College and St. George streets, c. 1911 (TRL T 12138) used with the permission of the Toronto Public Library.
Late in life, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie—who, according to his detractors, was no friend of working men—embarked on a quest to cement his legacy and life’s work. Upon his retirement in 1901, when he sold Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for the astronomical sum of $500,000,000, Carnegie launched himself into the philanthropic disposal of his wealth as a full-time occupation. In addition to the hospital wings and university buildings that bear his name, his ideal philanthropic project was the construction of a free library as an educational and community institution. Carnegie donated $56,162,622.97, according to figures in Margaret Beckman, Stephen Langmead, and John Black’s The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario (Dundurn, 1984), to local communities across the world—including $2,556,660 for 125 projects in Canada—for the construction of free-lending libraries. Toronto enjoyed a number of Carnegie-funded libraries: Yorkville (1907); Queen and Lisgar (1909); the Central Reference Library (1909); Riverdale (1910); Wychwood (1916); High Park (1916); Beaches (1916). Three more—Western Branch/Annette Street (1909), Weston (1914), and Mimico (1914)—would be absorbed into the Toronto Public Library system as the city amalgamated nearby communities. Victoria College (1910) also received a library grant.


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Photo of the High Park Branch Library, c. 1916 (TRL T 12159) used with the permission of the Toronto Public Library.
The idea of a public lending library was nothing new in Toronto. By 1850, there were two subscription-based libraries and a free library opened by merchant John Lesslie in 1830, in addition to a Mechanics’ Institute, which housed a lending library and hosted educational lectures and classes for the betterment of the working classes. The Mechanics’ Institute evolved into the Toronto Public Library with the passage of the Free Library By-Law in 1883. News of Carnegie’s scheme proved as exciting here as elsewhere because it presented the opportunity to expand and strengthen the library.
With worldwide demand, the process of applying for a Carnegie library grant could be laborious, often requiring months or more of correspondence back and forth with the taciturn and idiosyncratic administrator of the grants, James Bertram. Grants were to be used for the construction of a new, single-purpose library building only—not for furnishings, books, or amenities—and, in reaction to what he felt were a few communities that had abused Carnegie’s generosity, Bertram made the process more bureaucratic. Communities had to provide detailed answers to Bertram’s questions about the town’s size and population, the availability of a site, as well as the current and future level of financial support for the local library (if one already existed).
After a couple of unsuccessful applications, in late January 1903 the Toronto council succeeded in securing a letter of promise for $350,000 from Bertram. The majority of the amount would go towards a central reference library, while about $25,000 was earmarked for each of the three new branches. In order to receive the money, the city had to pass a resolution promising to levy a tax to pay for the library’s upkeep and had to provide evidence that a site had been acquired. Councillors enthusiastically formalized their financial commitment, but the process of selecting sites for the new libraries got bogged down in the wranglings of local politics. It wasn’t until May, 1905, that council was able to send the finalized details to Bertram.
Toronto’s labour movement, however, was far less enthusiastic. As an unsavoury legacy of Carnegie’s heartless handling of a 1892 steel mill strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, he was demonized by many labour organizers across the continent who regarded his library funds as “blood money.” In Toronto, the Council of Allied Printing Trades and the Toronto District Labour Council both officially opposed the city’s acceptance of the grant money. Others, as the The Best Gift points out, added a nationalistic appeal to labour’s critique. These critics suggested that it would be “humiliating for a large city of wealth and refinement to be placed in the position of begging for a share of the Steel King’s millions.” On the other hand, Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, was less concerned about accepting Carnegie’s money. He wrote to Toronto labour leaders that they ought to “accept [Carnegie’s] library, organize the workers, secure better working conditions and particularly reduction in hours of labor and then workers will have some chance and leisure in which to read books.”
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Photo of Andrew Carnegie at Toronto City Hall (TRL 969 12 2) used with the permission of the Toronto Public Library.
By the time Carnegie passed through town in the spring of 1906, the welcome he received was nothing short of adulatory. Given the sort of treatment usually reserved for foreign dignitaries, Carnegie attended a reception at the public library at Church and Adelaide, received an address by Mayor Emerson Coatsworth at City Hall, and gave a speech at the Canadian Club. From Carnegie’s perspective, all the pomp and circumstance was rather unnecessary because, contrary to popular opinion, he never required or demanded public recognition of his benefaction. His graciousness upon such occasions was reflected in the tone of a brief address he gave at city hall:

I want the branch libraries to be near the people. I want them to attract the young, for young men may go to other objectionable places if the libraries are not convenient. The building should look quiet, dignified and classic, but not mere architectural structures. I am not going to put my hand in a hornets’ nest by interfering with the architects, but my ideas of a library building are as I have stated and I am desirous that the branch libraries be as numerous as possible.

George H. Locke, the city’s chief librarian since 1908, echoed Carnegie’s passion for a public library’s immense potential as an educational and enriching cultural institution in an April, 1909, speech at the Canadian Club. “The library may be anything from a collection of books to a living, civilizing social force in the community,” he said, “recognized as having rank with the school and the church.” Rather than acting as a mere repository of books, Locke sought to increase the public’s access—he even expressed a desire to extend the reference library’s hours of operation until 10 p.m.—to stimulate the reading habit among the public and to spur a demand for the best possible publications. In essence, Locke saw the library’s purpose as being to help members of the public to help themselves.
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Photo of the Interior of the Wychwood Branch Library, c. 1916 (TRL T 12165) used with the permission of the Toronto Public Library.
The first batch of Carnegie libraries in Toronto fit the Beaux-Arts-inspired design—with a symmetrical layout of rooms and classical exterior detailing—stereotypically associated with Carnegie libraries across the world. By the time Locke secured a second Carnegie grant for more branches in September 1915, he exerted a greater influence over their planning and design. With greater first-hand experience in the daily operations of a library than many library board members, Locke keenly understood how a more simplified building design would better serve a library’s function and better meet the needs of its patrons. Locke found an agreeable architect in Eden Smith, and the next generation of Carnegie-funded libraries in Toronto—Wychwood, High Park, and Beaches—were built in an entirely new style of one-room institutions with vaulted ceilings. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Locke described his approach:

Take away all the unnecessary decorations, over-mantels, over-counters, partitions, mock marble pillars and large hallways and plan a well proportioned room with books on the walls, small and a few tables, a simple charging desk (not a great counter), simple lighting as near the books and the people as possible, and a combination of colours in the walls that make for harmony.

Over the years, some of the Carnegie-funded buildings have changed purposes. The Queen and Lisgar branch closed in 1964 and is now used by Toronto Public Health; the Central Reference Library closed in 1977 and it now the University of Toronto’s Koffler Student Centre; and the Mimico branch was demolished in 1966. Yet throughout these changes, Locke and Carnegie’s shared vision that a library could serve as a true centre of the community where people intermingle freely with ideas has endured.

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