Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to outline a reconceptualised view of public education, with specific reference to early twentieth-century Australia, and to revisit the significance of the Carnegie Corporation of New York in this period. Further, in this regard, the paper proposes a neo-Foucaultian notion of philanthropic power, as an explanatory and analytical principle, with possible implications for thinking anew about the role and influence of American philanthropic organisations in the twentieth century. Design/methodology/approach: The paper draws on mainly secondary sources but also works with primary sources gathered from relevant archives, including that of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). Findings: The paper concludes that the larger possibilities associated with the particular view of public education outlined here, referring to both public school and public libraries, were constrained by the emergence and consolidation of an increasingly professionalised view of education and schooling. Research limitations/implications: The influence of the Carnegie Corporation of New York on early twentieth-century Australian education has been increasingly acknowledged and documented in recent historical research. More recently, Carnegie has been drawn into an interdisciplinary perspective on philanthropy and public culture in Australia. This paper seeks to add to such work by looking at schools and libraries as interconnected yet loosely coupled aspects of what can be understood as, in effect, a re-conceived public education, to a significant degree sponsored by the Corporation. Originality/value: The paper draws upon but seeks to extend and to some extent re-orient existing historical research on the relationship between Australian education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Its originality lies in its exploration of a somewhat different view of public education and the linkage it suggests in this regard with a predominantly print-centric public culture in Australia, in the first half of the twentieth century.