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Carnegie, Dewey still live —in area libraries

| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 2:41 a.m.
The first U.S. Carnegie Free Library was built in Braddock near Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie sponsored nearly 60 in Pennsylvania – 25 in the Philadelphia area alone. He was quoted as saying that he believed in giving “to the industrious and ambitious, not those who need everything done for them.' In 1901, Carnegie provided a $50,000 grant for Connellsville’s library with the stipulation that it – like all of his libraries – would be available free of charge to the public. Lori C. Padilla | for the Daily Courier Oct 2012

Andrew Carnegie could never have foreseen the advent of online library book catalogs.

Nor could have Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey Decimal Classification system which is used to catalog books in 95 percent of school and public libraries.

However, both men would have been happy to know that people are still using libraries today, much as they were 100-plus years ago.

Carnegie's influence on the public library system spawned an explosion of book collections nationwide. The result was a more educated public.

Carnegie's contribution

Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835 and immigrated to America in 1848, settling in the Pittsburgh area. He was the son of a hand-loom weaver who believed in books and learning.

Carnegie's career began with factory work for $1.20 pay per week. He moved from there to the Pennsylvania Railroad, rising rapidly through its ranks. He struck it rich by investing, especially investing in oil.

By 1875, he owned Carnegie Steel Company, which revolutionized U.S. steel making. By 1889, it was the largest corporation of its type in the world.

Although he would later be known as a philanthropist, Carnegie's labor practices were sometimes viewed with skepticism. The most infamous example of his labor problems occurred in 1892 at his Homestead steel mill when a workers' strike turned violent. The company hired police to quell the riot and bloodshed ensued.

Less than 10 years later — in 1901 — the 65-year-old Carnegie sold his company to U.S. Steel Corporation, which was then owned by financier J.P. Morgan.

Carnegie devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic endeavors. Between 1883 and 1929, his foundation funded more than 2,500 public libraries — almost 1,700 of them in the United States.

The first Carnegie Free Library was built in Braddock near Pittsburgh. He sponsored nearly 60 in Pennsylvania.

Carnegie was quoting as saying that he believed in giving “to the industrious and ambitious, not those who need everything done for them.”

Connellsville's library

At the time, Connellsville was known far and wide for its booming coal industry and the mega-tons of pearl-white coke that were produced near those coal mines — coke that fueled Pittsburgh's many steel mills.

In 1901, Carnegie provided a $50,000 grant for Connellsville's library with the stipulation that it — like all of his libraries — would be available free of charge to the public.

Constructed along South Pittsburgh Street, Carnegie Free Library opened in 1903. The Italian Renaissance-style structure was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

The facility continues to attract readers and researchers from Connellsville Area School District and beyond, according to head librarian Casey Sirochman. She announced recently that the library's book collection is now available online at

More than 40,000 books have been bar-coded for the Internet catalog. The tall wooden cabinets that once held typed index cards now stand empty. The card catalog era is over; Connellsville's was one of the last state-funded Pennsylvania libraries to switch over to the Internet.

Dewey's story

During the late 19th century, libraries grew rapidly, thanks to better printing methods and philanthropists like Carnegie. However, there was no universal system for how to arrange books; libraries made do the best way they could.

Enter Melvil Dewey, who was always searching for an easier way to list and collect books.

He'd be pleased, too, that the local library's collection adheres to the decimal system that he invented.

Dewey was born in New York in 1851. When he was in grade school, he developed a lingering cough after “rescuing” books from a school fire.

The haphazard order of books irritated Dewey when he was a college student in the 1870s. He pondered the problem for years until he happened upon an 1856 pamphlet written by Nathaniel Shurtleff that suggested arranging books via a decimal system.

The idea to combine a numbering system (like the British Museum used) with a classification by topic came to Dewey one Sunday while he was in church. “The solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near to shouting ‘Eureka!'” he wrote.

So, the numbered Dewey Decimal Classification system was born.

Catalog was in the ‘cards'

The card catalog system can be traced back to the French Revolution of the 1790s, when the French government seized books from all church libraries. The books' bibliographies were scrawled on the blank backs of playing cards — hence, “card” catalog.

By the 1870s, card catalogs had appeared in Britain and the U.S.

In 1876, the American Library Association, outlining the decimal system, was founded by Dewey. He also set up the first institution that trained librarians. It was a fine art at first, requiring a special handwriting type using specialized ink, pens and erasers.

Later, typewritten cards replaced the handwritten ones. Still later, pre-printed cards became the norm. The beginning of the card catalog's demise began in the late 1960s when a computerized system — pre-Internet — was developed in Dublin, Ohio.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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