Carnegie libraries in Wales

September 18, 2021 3 Comments

Alfred Zimmern, the classicist and first professor of international politics in Aberystwyth (and the world) is now largely forgotten, except for one striking phrase he coined, ‘American Wales’.  He was referring to the explosive industrialisation of south Wales in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, which produced an economy and society that, he felt, had more in common with the United States than those of the rest of Wales (which he called ‘Welsh’ Wales and ‘English’ Wales).

One aspect of the Americanisation of Wales that is often overlooked is the critical influence of the industrial baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie on the development of public libraries in Wales, after he had sold his steel interests in 1901.  In 1902 alone Carnegie gave grants to fund the building of sixteen new public library buildings throughout Wales.  The grants continued until 1913, resulting in a total of thirty-five libraries.  Seventeen of them are still open as libraries today, some provide other public and community facilities, and only one has been demolished.  Without Carnegie’s gifts, libraries in Wales, as in the rest of the UK and elsewhere, would have been much slower to develop and to serve their local communities.

Carnegie’s grants were directed towards public libraries (he was reluctant to help other kinds of library, and turned down a plea from the infant National Library of Wales).  His grants did not come without conditions.  He insisted that the sites for buildings were provided locally, that they were available freehold, and that the local authority had the means and the will to provide for stock, staff and building maintenance, by adopting the Public Libraries Act and dedicating the ‘penny rate’ to library services.  It was up to the local authorities to make applications to Carnegie, via his agent James Bertram, and to negotiate the details (this was often a long process).

The Welsh Carnegie libraries are now the subject of a new, thoroughly researched book, Free and public: Andrew Carnegie and the libraries of Wales, by Prof. Ralph A. Griffiths.  He offers us a pen-portrait of Carnegie and the reasons he gave for his philanthropy, before summarising the state of public libraries before Carnegie, and describing the often complex processes of planning and building the libraries.

Pontypool Library

A map of the Carnegie buildings across the country reveals how uneven was their distribution.  Griffiths’s claim that ‘all parts of Wales’ benefited is an exaggeration.  Only one library, Aberystwyth, was funded in Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, only one in Powys, and none in Anglesey.  The seventeen new libraries in the old county of Glamorgan tended to cluster in the eastern valleys, and Swansea had none.  Carnegie, of course, had no overall plan for locating his libraries: the initial stimulus depended on local initiative (Merthyr was especially active and ambitious) and networking by Liberal politicians.  It was also hard at this time for rural areas to provide for libraries.  Despite a chapter on ‘abortive proposals’ for libraries, Griffiths offers only limited explanations for the unequal distribution.

One factor in the coalmining valleys was the prior existence of libraries that the miners themselves funded and maintained.  Typically these formed part of local miners’ institutes.  This was a model of provision that had grown democratically and organically, from within the mining communities, rather than one imposed from above (the gentry and industrialists who dominated local councils in their early days) or from outside (philanthropists like Carnegie).  In 1903 Penrhiwceiber, which had a well-stocked miners’ library, turned down an offer of £700 from Carnegie as a ‘municipal dole’.

Cathays branch library, Cardiff

Miners and other workers could be suspicious of the price paid for Carnegie’s gifts.  Llanelli borough council rejected a suggestion to apply to him for funds, after a passionate plea by Alderman Nathan Griffiths:

I object on principle as a working man to making this application. … I would not be a party to accepting a single penny piece of Carnegie’s money.  I have not forgotten the shooting of the strikers by Pinkerton’s men.  Nor I would not touch a single penny of the money of the man who employed mercenaries to shoot down my fellow-workers.  I may be on the side of the minority in the town, but I have a conscience.

The speaker was referring to the occasion when Pinkerton agents, acting for Carnegie, opened fire on strikers at his steel plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892, resulting in several deaths and the destruction of the workers’ union.  Ralph Griffiths tries to partly excuse Carnegie by saying that the clash happened ‘when Carnegie himself was in Scotland’.  He calls Carnegie an ‘industrial entrepreneur and philanthropist of titanic proportions’, but many people at the time had other names for him.

Darllenfa rydd Dolgellau / Free Library, Dolgellau

Others were suspicious of Carnegie’s motives.  In a committee discussion in 1909 about negotiations with him over an abortive grant to the town of Ruthin, Mr W.H. Williams claimed that there were two sorts of philanthropist: those who gave without fuss, and those who ‘made a lot of noise’.  Carnegie belonged to the latter:

Syniad Mr. Carnegie wrth gynorthwyo gwahanol drefi i godi adeiladau i Lyfrgelloedd oedd codi cofgolofnau sefydlog iddo ei hun trwy’r wlad, a chymerai ofal fod y geiriau gwefreiddiol ‘Llyfgell Rydd Carnegie’ wedi eu cerfio mewn llythyrau breision ar bob adeilad a godid. Nid dyn i guddio ei ganwyllau o dan lestri oedd Mr. Carnegie.

Griffiths doesn’t mention this occasion.  He gives the impression that Carnegie was too modest to insist on being acknowledged in his building, but the word ‘Carnegie’ appears often enough on facades, and he was probably far from reluctant to see his name in stone.

Dowlais Library

What is so striking about the buildings themselves is how varied they are in style.  As Griffiths says, the architects – some local, others from afar – had a number of different possibilities available to them: classical, gothic, and more contemporary idioms.  Some of them tended to be grim and dark – as I remember Aberystwyth being, years ago – but the best of them, like Canton branch library in Cardiff, were designed in the Arts and Crafts tradition, and are airy, spacious and welcoming.  Griffiths has sections on the architects and their styles, but could have written much more to good effect.

Perhaps Griffiths should have recruited a library historian as a co-author, because he has frustratingly little to say about how the Carnegie libraries were used and staffed.  How influential were the librarians in planning the buildings and their services?  (John Ballinger without doubt had a large hand to play in designing the Cardiff branch libraries.)  How were the buildings staffed and operated?  What new services did the new buildings make possible? What was the reaction of readers, and what was the overall impact of the thirty-five libraries?

Whitchurch, Cardiff Library

Free and public has its shortcomings, but many strengths.  The vision that drove Carnegie – a vision of a world where knowledge and education would be freely open to all – comes across strongly, and with relevance, at a time when they are needed more than ever.  As well as the concise text, notes, bibliography and excellent index, the book contains a detailed gazetteer of the libraries, and photographs of most of them (unfortunately, only in black and white).  Until a more detailed history comes to be written, it will stand as a valuable introduction to what was a short but highly energetic chapter in the cultural history of Wales. 

Carnegie has a continuing influence in Wales.  The Carnegie UK Trust, set up in 1913, still takes an occasional interest in our public libraries. In 2012 it published a valuable leaflet on public attitudes to libraries in Wales entitled A new chapter: public library services in the 21st century.

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  1. Aberystwyth library – The Carnegie legacy in England and Wales | September 5, 2023
  1. Cheryl says:

    The photo above is of the Cathays Carnegie library in Cardiff, not Canton library in west Cardiff which is also a Carnegie library.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, Cheryl – corrected! There’s another review of this book in Planet, 246, May-August 2022 by Alan Vaughan Hughes.

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