One of the best historical examples of effective altruism is Andrew Carnegie’s investment in free public libraries. Between 1893 and 1919, Andrew Carnegie, through his philanthropy, invented the American system of free public libraries. He funded the construction over 2509 libraries worldwide, all in English speaking countries.  Of that number, 1689 were free public libraries in the United States, 70% of them in small towns. 

Carnegie didn’t just write checks for buildings. He leveraged his money to require that the beneficiaries provide permanent support for the library, usually by enacting a property tax or millage.  A municipality seeking a Carnegie grant had to provide the land, stock the library, pay the staff, and guarantee that the library would be free and open to all. Carnegie required sturdy buildings with brick or stone exteriors  He provided design templates and recommended architects. He envisioned the public library as a community center, and all the designs had a large meeting space. The first floor had a wing for children’s books and on the other side a quieter adult wing.  In between was a professional librarian, who could provide reference services while keeping an eye on children’s side. The notion that a public library should be open to children and offer a collection for them was novel, and a major contribution to literacy.

Carnegie’s passion for libraries can be explained by his life experiences. At the age of 12, he emigrated with his family from Scotland to the United States, where he was put to work in the textile factories of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the end of his formal education. After a year of brutal factory work, he found a position as a messenger for a telegraph company. Within 18 months he had mastered morse code and won a full-time position as a telegraph operator.  He was the family’s breadwinner by the time he was sixteen.

Despite leaving school at the age of 12, Carnegie continued his education by visiting private fee-based libraries.  In Pennsylvania, free public schooling did not become the norm until the latter half of the 19th Century, after the Civil War. Pittsburgh, like many cities had subscription libraries. There was a private library established for apprentices and working boys that permitted them to borrow a book a week.  It required boys not bound in an apprenticeship to pay an annual fee of two dollars. Carnegie, at the age of 17, wrote letters to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, calling for the fee to be removed.  After a few letters, the library removed the fee for Carnegie. Years later, he used the wealth he made as a steel magnate to invest in free public libraries.

David Nasaw’s biography of Carnegie offers insight in to how Carnegie leveraged his wealth to build a robust system of public libraries. In 1903 the head of the Philadelphia Free Library wrote to Carnegie, seeking funds to build 30 branch libraries throughout the city for $20,000 - $30,000 each. 

“Carnegie wrote back that he did not think ‘this sum would be enough.  You should have lecture rooms in these Branch Libraries and our experience in Pittsburgh is that we have not spent enough upon them… I think, therefore, it would be well for you to spend Fifty Thousand Dollars for these Branch Library Buildings and it would give me pleasure to provide a Million and a half Dollars,’ provided that the city agreed to maintain the libraries ‘a cost of not less than $150,000 a year.’” [Nasaw: Andrew Carnegie, 2006, p.607].

If philanthropy is to be effective, if the good that it aims to achieve is to be sustained over time, it must find ways to summon public funds to carry on the work. Private wealth is more nimble than public funds and it can take risks civil servants cannot. Today, over 600 of the buildings that were constructed in the U.S. with Carnegie’s money are still in service as libraries. Others have been transformed into museums, cultural centers, or government buildings. But whether the Carnegie building still stands or not, the institution of the free public library thrives in nearly every town and city where Carnegie put down the seed money, because he insisted that the government provide for the ongoing operating expenses through taxation. He transformed public libraries from a cultural nicety into an essential public service widely available to all. His philanthropy made a difference in the long term. 

Long term solutions to the problems of climate change, nuclear threats, and runaway AI require a partnership with governments to implement any solution. It may require that best practices be fixed in law with statutes and regulations. That is harder and messier than coming up with the solution.  

As a director of a public library, I am grateful that there are people ready to invest their wealth in bringing about the greater good. I hope all such investments will leverage the power of those funds to ensure lasting and long-term betterment.





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Carnegie's philanthropy really fascinates me. His support for the Efficiency Movement, for example, strikes me as a sign that he would have liked Effective Altruism. I also spent much of high school doing education policy advocacy and building online student/support resources used by thousands of students, so the exponential benefit of knowledge sharing very much resonates with me.

However, I often wonder: Would interventions that we retroactively consider "very good examples of EA" have been considered EA at the time?

For example, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think I've ever come across research covering education and literacy initiatives in an EA context. Global health research focuses on reducing disease burden, and not education or knowledge infrastructure initiatives that are comparable to what Carnegie did.

And certainly, contemporary EAs could argue that Carnegie could have spent his fortune reducing developing world disease burden or reducing the risk of great power conflict. Fun fact, Carnegie offered to purchase the Philippines' independence for $20 million ($700 Million today) and campaigned for Filipino independence until his death. 

Some historical interventions like the eradication of smallpox or the Green Revolution fit quite closely within existing EA frameworks, but others like Carnegie's libraries or Ralph Nader's advocacy for seat belt and safety regulation strike me as harder to fit under current EA frameworks.

I think this is an important question to ask. If EAs in fifty years are applauding interventions that the current EA movement is undervaluing, then I feel that reflects a misjudgement somewhere.

Carnegie was an unusual rich guy.  For example, he was a fan of progressive taxation. I did not know about his interest in Filipino independence.  Thank you for that!  Carnegie's philanthropy was driven by his personal passions.  He not only loved libraries, he was a really big fan of pipe organs, paying for 7500 of them, mostly in churches. One can argue philanthropists should take a more rational and dispassionate approach, but the reality is that that fund things they like and understand.

The interests of billionaires don't always mesh well with the needs of the world but they can move quickly, and that can be important in developing solutions, especially in public health.  I have really mixed feelings about the Gates Foundation's response to the Covid pandemic.  All and all, I guess I am glad they made the investments they did, but the power they hold in the field of public health is concerning.

I think it is worthwhile to examine past examples of what in retrospect might be considered EA, to learn from both the successes and failures.  Ralph Nader is a good example of advocacy work that can reduce harm.  Beyond car safety, Public Citizen did a lot of work advocation for safety in the field of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.