By Kenneth Kowald
I won’t get involved in the current problems of the Queens Public Library, but the investigations involving it gave rise to a great many thoughts, which may seem to be disconnected at first.
QPL is one of the largest library systems in the country. Certainly it serves the most diverse population. It has been one of the treasures of Queens. I hope it will continue to be so for many years and that whatever results from the current investigations will mean an even better system for Queens.
As I’ve written before, the Elmhurst branch of the library was a wonderful resource for me when I was growing up. I found out later that from the age of 6 (I have a few years on him), Antonin Scalia, an only child, lived with his parents in a home up the hill from the library and around the corner from Newtown High School. His father taught Romance Languages at Brooklyn College. Antonin’s elementary school was PS 13.
In that column, I wondered whether the future Supreme Court justice and I might have passed each other in the library. It was a great place and continues to be.
It is one of seven Queens libraries underwritten by Andrew Carnegie, a poor boy from Scotland who made a fortune in the steel business. In retirement, Carnegie endowed thousands of libraries, half of them in this country, including 67 in New York City.
One of the greatest music halls in the world was built with his money and it bears his name, although he had to be persuaded to have that done.
He wrote about “The Gospel of Wealth” and said that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” His Carnegie Foundation to this day is a remarkable and vibrant institution.
Before I knew much about Carnegie, I learned that he was a “robber baron,” a term coined it seems in 1870 in the Atlantic Monthly. Here are some other robber barons you might recognize:
John Jacob Astor, Jay Cooke, James B. Cooke, Marshall Field, James Fisk, Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould, Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Leland Stanford, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
These were business titans who were considered ruthless in their rise to riches. Perhaps, like Carnegie, many of them became philanthropists so that their legacy would not be one of evil. Guilt complexes?
Some of the Koch family members are listed as robber barons today. One of two brothers has been a benefactor of culture in New York City. You may not agree with their politics or their business ethics, but what was the New York State Theater has been properly renovated because of Koch money. The new four-block-long plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is thanks to Koch money.
Look at it this way: If Koch money goes into “good works,” it means less for politics, although with their wealth, that seems to matter little.
This raises the question of how to take “tainted” money for a good cause. Should funds be turned down because the proposed giver is not anyone you would want to have as a friend? Perhaps they may even be convicted felons.
I leave it to others to decide the ethical response, as the occasion warrants.
I am not sure that the questions were raised when Carnegie set out on his philanthropic career. I do know that two of the wonderful branches he endowed — the other that I know personally is Richmond Hill — are important to thousands of people in our borough.
When the current problems are resolved, I hope the Queens Public Library will continue to be a beacon of wisdom and hope to all Queens residents.
I think Andrew Carnegie would be pleased.
(Please see my blog, No Holds Barred, at TimesLedger.com)