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How Knowledge Access Drives Innovation

In the late 19th Century Andrew Carnegie was the richest man in the world. From being a poor Scottish immigrant to the US he went on to build a steel empire which he sold to JP Morgan for almost half a billion dollars. He then proceeded to give most of his self-made fortune away, including $60 million to fund a network of 1,689 public libraries across the country. He was a complex character who presided over one of the most bitter labour disputes in U.S history but who also believed in the power of knowledge and public libraries as essential instruments of change (in the ‘Gospel of Wealth’, written in 1889, he wrote that ‘In bestowing charity the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves’). 

Carnegie’s libraries were open to all, and dramatically democratised the access to knowledge in the cities and towns where they were built. A recent tweet from Ethan Mollick pointed me at an interesting study, published late last year, showing the impact of this system of libraries on innovation. The study found that patenting in towns that had libraries built increased by 7-11 percent in the 20 years following their construction. The study further shows that ‘access to scientific knowledge and opportunities to interact with fellow patrons are possible mechanisms’


Another example, should one be needed, of the power of democratising access to knowledge in catalysing innovation.

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Image source: Library of Congress

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