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Author, preservationists forge a consensus on Andrew Carnegie's legacy

Thursday, May 18, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

One way Andrew Carnegie guaranteed a lasting legacy for himself was to buy it -- in the form of public libraries and an endowment, the Carnegie Corp.

That combination came together yesterday to continue the preservation work when the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh held a daylong symposium, "Preserving Andrew Carnegie's Legacy."

The symposium highlighted the library's plans to ensure that its collection of Carnegie materials is available to researchers in the future. Funding the project is a $500,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp.

The event drew 105 preservationists, librarians and archival students to the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, Oakland, to hear Harold Livesay, American history professor at Texas A&M University, deliver the keynote address.

"I guess I'm the senior Carnegie scholar right now," said Livesay, whose biography of the 19th-century steel magnate, "Andrew Carnegie and the Rise of Big Business," is now in its second edition.

In the nation's memory, there are three Andys, he said: "Carnegie the hero, Carnegie the scoundrel and Carnegie the benefactor."

It's the hero image, the rags-to-riches tale of the immigrant who made a fortune in America, which is popular right now during this latest wave of immigration to the United States, Livesay claimed.

"This image has an ongoing, timeless appeal for so many people. I think it's one reason why my book is still in print," he added. "In Carnegie's story can be found identity, hope, inspiration for people's dreams."

To union members like Livesay's grandfather, however, it was the scoundrel legacy that lived on.

"Every time he drove past the Carnegie Library [in Livesay's hometown of Louisville, Ky.], my grandfather would roll down the window and spit," Livesay said. "'That's all you get, Carnegie, down in hell with Frick,' he would say."

As the source of 1,600 public library buildings in the United States, the impact of Carnegie the benefactor is "incalculable," he said.

There is another, equally important legacy of the onetime Allegheny City bobbin boy which endures unnoticed, said Livesay: Carnegie's approach to business.

"His techniques have had a lasting impact on the way American business operates today," he said. With its emphasis on competition, efficiency and meeting the demands of the market, Carnegie's approach to making steel was a classic case of capitalism in action.

"Watch the costs; the profits will take care of themselves" was the Carnegie mantra, a concept that remains as effective today as it did in the 19th century, Livesay said. "I have a drawer full of letters from former students who never forgot that saying and then used it in their own work."

But Carnegie's success drew strong responses from other capitalists such as J.P. Morgan, who believed that competition's tendency to lower prices threatened big business. Calling Morgan "the great stabilizer [of prices]," Livesay said his reaction to Carnegie was to encourage trusts and production controls.

The result was the federal government's intervention in American business with anti-trust legislation, intervention that continues to this day as another Carnegie legacy.

The true test of Carnegie's impact on American life, however, is the nation's current economic boom, Livesay said.

"The survival of our prosperity, which in itself is preserving his legacy of libraries, came directly from Carnegie's business principles," he said.

In its afternoon session, the symposium heard from a panel of preservationists, including Susan Hartman of the state Historical and Museum Commission and Janet Gertz of Columbia University Libraries, who discussed the library's Carnegie collections. They are:

Photographic collections of Luke Swank and Charles Morse Stotz and the Benefactors Photographic Collection of 650 photos given to Carnegie.

Carnegie Music Hall scrapbooks.

Carnegie cartoon scrapbooks.

Col. James Anderson library, approximately 300 books from the library of Carnegie's mentor in Allegheny City.

The Carnegie Collection, 350 books by and about the industrialist.

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