Marian Wright Edelman

When Andrew Carnegie was a 17-year-old immigrant “working boy” in Allegheny City, Penn. (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1853, he wanted to be able to borrow books to improve himself – but in the era of predominantly private libraries he was stopped by an annual $2 library subscription fee. At the time, he expressed his frustration in a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch and got the fee waived.

Years later, after building the steel empire that made him “the richest man in the world,” Andrew Carnegie gave $60 million to fund a system of 1,689 public libraries across the United States, with hundreds more in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Canada, and other parts of the world.

The Carnegie libraries were often the first free public libraries in their communities and popularized the “open stack” system that allowed people to browse through a library’s shelves themselves instead of having to request books from a clerk. They helped transform the expectation of public access to books and in the process transformed lives.

The library was often the grandest building in town, and the typical design included a front staircase as a visual symbol that visitors were elevating themselves by entering the building. One injustice was that many libraries were initially segregated and some towns received grants for racially separate Black libraries but several Carnegie libraries broke those barriers, too. Washington, D.C.’s library was integrated from its 1903 opening and for many years was one of the only places in the city Black citizens knew they could use the public bathrooms. Across the country Carnegie libraries set a standard as centers of their communities and pioneered new ways libraries could serve people that went beyond the gift of books.

Today’s libraries continue to find ways to extend the tradition of community outreach in the 21st century. I recently had a wonderful visit with staff heads of the Los Angeles Public Library system and library foundation. Its 73 locations serve the largest and most diverse population of any library system in the country. I loved hearing about all the ways their system reaches out to their community – especially their services for young people. Carnegie libraries featured some of the first children’s rooms and most of us are now familiar with library story times and other vital literacy programs for young children. The Los Angeles Public Library features these and much more.

Some library branches provide free lunches in the summer targeting children who qualify for free or reduced price meals during the school year, pairing summer meals distribution with programs like the Summer Fun reading club, art and science activities, free eye exams and eyeglasses, and jobs skills training for teenagers.

“Full STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Ahead” programs offer popular activities like robotics, coding, circuitry, and stop-motion animation. Student Zones in libraries provide homework help, computers, tutoring, and areas for collaborating on school projects. Online tutoring for children in kindergarten -12th grades and adult learners provides one-on-one live homework help with math, science, social studies, and English accessible from any Internet-connected device.

Teenagers have their own special rooms, group study spaces, and workshops to help them improve study skills and prepare for PSAT/SAT exams and college applications. Parent workshops teach parents how to help their young children start school with the skills they need to read and learn, and librarians bring the same early literacy information to Head Start programs, child care centers, and community-based organizations to reach more families.

Other library efforts stand out. In order to serve Los Angeles’s large number of immigrant residents eligible to become U.S. citizens, the library has created the Path to Citizenship program with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and dozens of community organizations. City libraries provide materials and resources in “Citizenship Corners” and offer workshops about citizenship issues, events providing help filing for citizenship, and literacy classes to build English language skills.

It was wonderful to be reminded of what is possible when a public institution truly seeks to serve its community. I hope all public libraries across the country will follow in the Los Angeles Public Library’s terrific footsteps.

Visit the Association for Library Services for Children’s Summer Reading Lists, the American Library Association’s Library Programs for School Aged Kids and School and Library Activities for Children and Young Adults, and It Takes More than Snacks to Attract Teens to Your Programs.

As a child I hated not being allowed into the segregated library in my hometown of Bennettsville, S.C. But I am honored and grateful that today the Marlboro County Public Library – the Marian Wright Edelman Library in Bennettsville – provides a panoply of early childhood and adult literacy programs including technology training and computers for community use; summer reading programs; bookmobile visits to Head Start programs, child care centers, schools, after-school programs, and adult centers; outreach to programs for at-risk youths; and health provider visits. Equally important to an elementary school child last year was the summer feeding program. He wrote: “Dear Superhero Thanks for cooking breakfast Without you we would starve.” The sign above the front door, Welcome to Everyone, is the message all libraries should send their communities every day. 

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to