Carnegie Library, Akron, Ohio, 1904, source: Wikipedia

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American businessman who made a fortune in steel and built libraries across the world between 1883 and 1929.

He build 1600 of them in the US, including the one above.

Little Free Library, Seward Park neighborhood, Seattle, photo taken April 2019, source: author.

This library stands in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle. It is a Little Library, one of 100,000 in the Little Library system.

It’s a big difference. Surely, one of these is a library only if the other isn’t.

The most obvious difference is scale. The Carnegie library is grand if not triumphant. The Little library is sweet and dear.

One of daunting. The other is not.

The great American libraries celebrated the architects of Western thought. Boston Public Library (not a Carnegie) lines up them up on high: Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Bacon. (That these were all white men bothered no one.)

The Little library is not about high culture. It’s not about the great minds that invented Western Civ. As a philanthropic gesture, it does not beat the drum on the behalf of a Bill Gates or some other patron. Instead, it’s an exercise in anonymity. It’s a celebration of the absence of ego. Who made this collection? We have no idea.

The great libraries hope for a comprehensive representation of knowledge. When the resources are there, a library is close to a map of the world.

But this little library is a hodge podge of titles. A diet book, some detective fiction, even a book that appears to have made it out of a big library into this little one. (See the book with its spine obscured.)

If big libraries aim to be comprehensive, the little library couldn’t care less. This is collection was created by serendipity. It was invented by accident.

It’s fun to think how much of our world we could reconstruct if all we had to go on the contents of a big library. And what would we end up if all we had to work with was a little one. Ooph!

This raises a question: why do little libraries exist at all? They are so partial, so accidental, so uninspiring, and so unaspiring. To add to the mystery, we can sit down to a computer and call up virtually everything in print, including things once buried beyond hope of discovey in Rare Book rooms and archives.

The short answer is a cultural one: we are in love with the little, the accidental, the imperfect, and anti-systematic. Yes, we can have access to all knowledge but we prefer something that feels like a Koi pond. We like partial sets, mysterious manifestations, unexpected finds, things we couldn’t anticipate at all. Now that we can have everything, we like a few things, served up with charm and side orders of serendipity.

Andrew Carnegie started his life as a bobbin boy. His only shot at improvement was knowledge. But the local library demanded a subscription fee. When he asked that this be waved, he was refused.

For Carnegie, libraries were a ladder. He used them to rise. And after he rose, he created an empire of libraries (free and available to all) so that others could rise too.

We’re not looking for ladders. What are we looking for?

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.