"We the People" Libraries: Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie

3, 4, 5

Students will give examples of philanthropy as they relate to public libraries. The lesson also will demonstrate the importance of books in a democratic society.

Lesson Rating 
PrintThree 30 Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • research two historical figures of different eras and compare and contrast their lasting and significant philanthropic contributions.
  • apply collected information in composing newspaper articles about historical figures.

Any textbook, article or book that describes the contributions of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie.


Palacco, Patricia. Pink and Say. Philomel Books, 1994. ISBN: 0399226710


  1. Anticipatory Set: Ask students, "What would it be like if we had no books? What would it be like if we couldn't read or write?" In colonial times through the 1800s, many people did not have the advantage of knowing how to read, nor did they have books available to them if they could read. In fact, there was a whole population of people who were kept away from books and reading by law-the enslaved people, African-Americans.

  2. Reading and books enable us to have knowledge of worlds beyond what we can see and touch. This knowledge gives us the power to be in charge of what we think is right and enables us to make up our own minds. In the words of Patricia Polacco's Pink, a slave boy who was taught to read "…even though he owned my person, I knew that nobody, ever, could really own me." (see Bibliographical References). Ask students what they think Pink meant when he said those words.

  3. Both Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie realized that reading, books, and the knowledge they provide, should not be for just the few rich and privileged but for anyone who wanted to learn. Because of this belief, they made books available to the general public through their philanthropy. Divide the class into two groups. Using print resources in the media center or on the Internet, have one-half of the class research Benjamin Franklin's idea of a subscription library and have the other half research Andrew Carnegie's establishment of free public libraries.

  4. Draw two intersecting circles (Venn diagram) on the chalkboard. Above one write the name "Franklin" and above the other circle write "Carnegie." In the section formed by the intersection of both circles, place characteristics of Franklin and Carnegie that were similar (comparison), such as, belief that books should be made available to everyone. For those characteristics or facts that were different for each man (contrasts), place those items in their respective circles under the name of the person they fit. Under Franklin, for example, students would write "subscription library." Under Carnegie, students would write "free library buildings." This technique allows students to see how the two men were similar and different in their beliefs and approaches.

  5. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides an example of contemporary philanthropy that supports public libraries. Hand out Attachment One: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Libraries, read as a class, and discuss any similarities these modern day philanthropists have with Carnegie and Franklin. Decide where characteristics of the Gates Foundation might fit in by creating a third circle on the Venn diagram.

  6. Once the research is completed, students should write two newspaper articles reporting on the contributions of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie towards the public library system. The articles should be specific enough to include a comparison and contrast of the ideas of both philanthropists. Remind students to include the Who, What, Where, When, and Why details in their articles.

  7. Hold a used book sale in the school and donate the proceeds to the public library of the students' choice. A different option is to donate used books directly to the public library for inclusion in their collections or for sale in their book sales.


The newspaper articles will serve as an assessment for this lesson.

Cross Curriculum 

The students will hold a used-book sale in their school and donate the proceeds to the public library of their choice. Students may also donate used books directly to the public library for inclusion in its collection or for the library's used book sale.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark E.5 Identify positive philanthropic historic acts or events that helped build the community, state, and nation.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.10 Identify reasons why historic figures acted for the common good.