9 Biggest Library Donations of All Time


Exact numbers on all the donations prove difficult to scratch up, even with the greatest feats of Google-Fu available. But some exceptionally generous contributions worth exploring, whether they involve money, books, computers, or something else entirely, still crop up. With libraries serving as cornerstones of communities worldwide, generosity in the interest of making them stronger deserves our admiration.

  1. Andrew Carnegie:

    We could fill this list with nothing but institutions and communities served by the famously philanthropic steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. But that’d be boring and repetitive. Instead, we’ll just focus on the fact that likely no one supported the world’s library systems to his extent. Estimates vary, but he is assumed to have donated around $350 million (in late-18th and early-19th century currency, which translates to “beaucoup coinage”) and well over 2,500 buildings worldwide to the cause of public libraries. “Carnegie libraries,” they’re called, and they reflect the donor’s devotion to establishing communities based around reading and education.

  2. Library of Congress:

    It makes sense that the biggest library in the world would play host to one of the biggest donations made within a specific medium. In this case, audio. Universal Music Group handed over 20,000 metal masters, 8,000 to 10,000 tape reels, and around 15,000 discs (roughly — some estimates surge higher than that) of recordings dating between 1930 to 1950. Some of these include master recordings by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, both highly influential (to put it mildly) names in the history of American music. The sonic corporate juggernaut maintains the copyrights, the Library of Congress focuses largely on preservation and education efforts.

  3. Southeastern Library Network:

    When America’s Gulf Coast fell victim to a series of hurricanes and tropical storms, over 150 public libraries big and small suffered from damages to their collections and buildings. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up with the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences to contribute $18 million toward rebuilding efforts fronted by the Southeastern Library Network. Money went toward restocking shelves and setting up interim libraries — even bookmobiles — to ensure books remained accessible to the community. In addition, the organizations convened in the interest of drawing up the most viable rebuilding plans possible.

  4. Brooklyn Public Library:

    The Leon Levy Foundation contributed $3.25 million worth of grants to the Brooklyn Public Library, the biggest in its history, in order to finance a state-of-the-art media center, and it could not have come at a better time. In 2010, the system grappled with a budget cut of $20.6 million, meaning the closing of about 16 different facilities. Donors wished to see the funding put toward an “information commons” to open in 2013 and started pushing libraries as hubs for individual and group study rather than just a place to go rent books. This means a “wireless training center” with 30 terminals, study rooms equipped with electronic white boards, seating for up to 60 laptop users, and 25 PCs, some of them tricked out with the latest graphic design and video equipment.

  5. Internet Archive:

    With the encroachment of digital media and archiving into day-to-day life, it makes sense that one of the most generous, ambitious library projects to date runs in binary, not binding. The nonprofit works with a $10 million budget annually, courtesy of founder Brewster Kahle and other donors, and involves a whopping 10 petrabytes of free, public domain materials — including full-length movies, images, video clips, soundbytes, and more. And since it launched in 1996, its Wayback Machine feature makes it easy to access and explore websites whose domains have long since expired.

  6. Cornell University:

    Cornell’s library system has been fortunate enough to receive several notably massive donations, including the equivalent of $30 million in today’s money as well as 32,000 books upon the passing of its very first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske. His friend Andrew Dickson White just happened to have founded the university, bequeathing 30,000 volumes on a diverse array of subjects. Over at the Hip Hop Collection, 2013 will see the launch of a permanent exhibit of Joe Conzo Jr.’s photography, which chronicled the musical genre’s early years. It will involve over 15,000 photos and negatives with great creative, historical, and sociological significance.

  7. Books for Africa:

    Annually, Books for Africa ships millions of donated texts to the eponymous continent in order to boost the collections of school and public libraries needing them most. It currently stands as the largest nonprofit of its type, having provided over 27 million books since 1988, and the past year it boasted 2.2 million donations. But Books for Africa’s reach extends well beyond the written word. Projects include providing computers and other electronics (why yes, these countries do have electricity!) as well as building specialty libraries focusing on law and medicine.

  8. The Fales Library:

    One of New York University’s more interesting, most unsung achievements revolves around its special collection of cookbooks. Yes. Cookbooks. Which is totally awesome. Cafe des Artistes owners George and Jenifer Lang contributed over 21,000 examples of the genre to the prestigious institute of higher learning in February of 2011, but others have chipped in to make the Fales Library something special and notable. Some of the other super amazing impressive donations include $115,000 toward the purchase of 10,000 works — among them a signed first edition of The Joy of Cooking. Another one, involving 7,000 cookbooks, was the philanthropic handiwork of Andrew F. Smith, a historian who wanted to see Fales grow.

  9. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library:

    Yet another fascinating specialty collection at a major college, this time at University of Toronto. Like you smarty-pantses have probably figured out, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library hosts rare books from across time and space and probably time AND space. One of the more impressive compilations involves a collection of labor movement literature donated by Robert S. Kenny. It spans 25,000 volumes, mostly peering into the history of workers’ rights as it pertains to Canadians and stands as one of the largest donations of its type.