Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Brief History of the New York Public Library

New York Public Library Reading RoomThe New York Public Library, as it exists to-day, is the result of the generosity of a few private citizens, combined with the efforts of the City itself. Its corporate existence, in its present form, began on May 23, 1895, by the consolidation of: "The Trustees of the Astor Library," "The Trustees of the Lenox Library," and "The Tilden Trust."

The Astor Library, originally incorporated in 1849, was founded by John Jacob Astor. His gifts, together with those of his sons and grandsons, amounted to about $1,700,000. Washington Irving was the first President of the Library, and Joseph Green Cogswell its first Superintendent, or Librarian. In its building on Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) it was for many years one of the literary landmarks of New York. At the time of its consolidation with The New York Public Library it had an endowment fund of about $941,000, which produced an annual income of about $47,000. It contained then 266,147 volumes. It was solely a reference library,—the funds were given with the understanding that the books should not be lent for use outside the building.

The Lenox Library. James Lenox, one of America's greatest book collectors, was born in New York City in 1800 and died there in 1880. In 1870, by the incorporation of the Lenox Library, he gave to the city of his birth his books and art treasures. The building, which formerly stood on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets, was erected for the Library and opened to the public, a part at a time, beginning in 1876. At the time of consolidation the Library owned its building, an endowment fund of $505,500, which yielded an annual income of about $20,500; and about 86,000 volumes. This also was a reference library, not a circulating library.

The Tilden Trust. Samuel Jones Tilden was born in New Lebanon, New York, in 1814. He died in New York City in 1886. By the final settlement of his estate the City received his private library and an endowment fund of about $2,000,000, for library purposes.

Consolidation. In the agreement for consolidation it was provided that the name of the new corporation should be "The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations"; that the number of its trustees should be twenty-one, to be selected from the thirty-three members of the separate boards; and that "the said new corporation shall establish and maintain a free public library and reading room in the City of New York, with such branches as may be deemed advisable, and shall continue and promote the several objects and purposes set forth in the respective acts of incorporation of 'The Trustees of the Astor Library,' 'The Trustees of the Lenox Library,' and 'The Tilden Trust.'"

Later, another member was added to the Board of Trustees, and three municipal officials were made members ex officio.

The first Director of The New York Public Library was Dr. John Shaw Billings, who served from 1896 until his death in 1913. He rendered distinguished services, especially in the organization of the new Library and in the arrangement of the Central Building.

New York Free Circulating Library. In 1901 the New York Free Circulating Library was consolidated with the new system. This Library had then eleven Branches and owned about 160,000 volumes.

Other Circulating Libraries. In 1901, the St. Agnes Free Library and the Washington Heights Free Library were also added to the system. The New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind and the Aguilar Free Library, with four Branches, were added in 1903. In 1904, the Harlem Free Library, Tottenville Free Library, the University Settlement Library at Rivington and Eldridge Streets, and the Webster Free Library followed. Also in 1904 the five Branches of the Cathedral Free Circulating Library became part of the new corporation.

Carnegie Branches. In 1901 Mr. Andrew Carnegie offered Greater New York $5,200,000 for the construction and equipment of free circulating libraries, on condition that the City provide the land and agree to maintain the libraries when built. The offer was accepted, and thirty-seven Branch Libraries are now housed in buildings erected with that part of Mr. Carnegie's gift assigned to The New York Public Library.

Management. The corporation is managed by a Board of twenty-five Trustees, including the Mayor, Comptroller, and President of the Board of Aldermen ex officio. The Trustees hold office continuously, and vacancies are filled by vote of the remaining Trustees. No Trustee receives any compensation for his services. The immediate management of the Library is entrusted to the Director. The Staff numbers between twelve and thirteen hundred persons, including those in the Central Building and in the Branches. As the buildings are open between twelve and thirteen hours a day the Staff works in two shifts. Somewhat less than half of the Staff are employed in the Central Building.

Benefactors. A complete list of the Library's benefactors, besides the three founders, can more appropriately be given elsewhere. In addition to Mr. Carnegie's gift, one bequest should be noted here: that of John S. Kennedy, who in 1909 left about $3,000,000 to the Library, without conditions.

Work of the Library. This historical sketch may help to make clear the organization and work of the Library as it is carried on to-day. It is a free reference library combined with a free circulating library. The books in the Reference Department (in the Central Building) which came from either the Astor or the Lenox Libraries, and those which have been added since the consolidation, from the endowments of those Libraries, must necessarily be for reference use only. The Astor and Lenox Foundations give the Trustees of The New York Public Library no option in this matter. About one million books in the Circulation Department (the Branch Libraries) are lent for home use.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Circulation Department

The Circulation Department of the Library performs its work through forty-four Branch Libraries in the Boroughs of Manhattan, Richmond (Staten Island), and The Bronx. (Each of the other two Boroughs of Greater New York, Brooklyn and Queens, has its own Public Library.) These Branches are in separate buildings, with the exception of the Circulation Branch in the Central Building. That is supported by the funds of the Library; all the others are maintained by the City. Thirty-seven of the Branch buildings were erected from funds given by Mr. Andrew Carnegie. The collections of books in the Branches number from ten to fifty thousand, with a total of about 1,100,000 books.

According to the general custom of American libraries, the NYPL imposes few restrictions upon its readers. This fact, together with its situation in the metropolis of the country, is the reason why it is probably used more than any other library under one management in the world. The use is constantly growing. In 1915 there were borrowed from the Branch Libraries, for home use, 10,384,579 books.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Underneath the Main Reading Room is the steel stack, in seven decks, containing 334,500 feet, or 63.3 miles, of shelving. It has room for about 2,500,000 books. (The special reading rooms have a shelf capacity for about 500,000 books.) The books in the stack are brought by electric elevators to the Main Reading Room, as they are called for by readers. The stack is not open to readers or visitors.

Monday, February 2, 2009

NYPL Main Reading Room

New York Public Library Reading Room
The Main Reading Room, in the rear, extends nearly the entire length of the building. It has a floor area of half an acre, and is divided in the middle by a booth from which books are delivered. There are seats for 768 readers. Mr. A. C. David, in the article previously quoted from the Architectural Record, says:

"The Main Reading Room is one of the most spacious rooms in the world—beautifully proportioned, lighted by a series of windows on both the long sides of the room, and entirely accessible to the stacks. To have obtained a room of these dimensions, so excellently adapted to its purpose in every respect, was a great triumph for the architects."

The shelves along the walls contain a collection of about 25,000 volumes. These books are not only the usual works of reference,—dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and the like, but they also include a good working library of general literature,—philosophy, religion, science, history, law, biography, standard novels, poetry, and the drama. These books are for the free use of anyone in this room, without the need of making any application. The reader has only to select the book he wishes, and to take it to a table, where he may consult it. When he has finished he should leave it on the table, rather than attempt to return it to its place, since a misplaced book is temporarily lost.

Children's Room

Near the 42nd Street entrance a corridor runs east to the Children's Room (No. 78). The visitor to the building should not fail to see this room, with its attractive furnishings, its collections of brightly colored picture-books, and pictures.

The object of the room is not only to perform the usual work of a children's room, but also to interest and help parents and others in selecting children's reading. Authors, artists, and publishers come here for information about books for children. Another purpose is to furnish suggestions for similar rooms elsewhere. A number of libraries, in other parts of the world, have adopted suggestions which they found here. Exhibitions on various subjects are held from time to time, and there is a collection of children's books of the old-fashioned kind. Open 9 a. m. to 6 p. m. week days.

NYPL Public Catalogue Room

This room (No. 315) contains the catalogue of the books in the Reference Department of the Library,—that is, the books available to readers in the Main Reading Room and in the special reading rooms of the Central Building. It is a dictionary catalogue, on cards, in which the books are entered by author, by subject, and by title, when the title is distinctive. The catalogue is in trays arranged in alphabetical order, beginning on the northwest wall of the room and running to the right. At the end of this catalogue, and on the southern side of the room, is an author catalogue of the books in the Central Circulation Branch and Central Children's Room, Rooms 78 and 80, in the basement. At the end of this second catalogue and separated from it by a public telephone, is a catalogue of the books in the Library of Congress for which printed catalogue cards have been issued.

Second Floor

On the second floor a corridor runs along the front of the building, turning into short corridors at the north and south, and also into a central corridor. From these corridors open studies, offices and special reading rooms. In the central corridor, four studies open on the right, while the fifth room on this side is devoted to the:

Oriental Division (No. 219), with a collection of about 20,000 books and pamphlets in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and other eastern languages. Open 9 a. m. to 6 p. m. week days.

Jewish Division (No. 217). Opposite the Oriental Division, on the south side of this central corridor, is the reading room devoted to the Jewish Division. There are about 24,000 books in the collection.

Slavonic Division. The room devoted to the Slavonic Division (No. 216) is also on the south side of the central corridor. The resources of this Division, books and periodicals in the various Slavonic languages, number about 23,000.[24]

Science Division. On the corridor parallel to Fifth Avenue, and leading north from the main staircase, the room on the right contains the Science Division (No. 225). There are about 35,000 books under the control of this Division.

Economics Division. From the corridor on the northern or 42nd Street end of the building open the rooms devoted to Public Documents (No. 229) and Economics and Sociology. These were formerly separate divisions, but now united, and the entrance is through Room 229. The resources of the Division (including the large collection of Public Documents) number about 400,000 books and pamphlets.

Business Offices

Following the corridor leading south and then turning to the right along the 40th Street side of the building, one reaches some of the business offices of the Library—the office of the Bursar (No. 104), of the Building Superintendent (No. 103), of the Chief of the Circulation Department (No. 102), and of the Supervisor of work with children (No. 105). These offices are open for any persons who have occasion to visit them for business reasons, but they are of no interest to sightseers. In Room 100, devoted mainly to the cataloguing work of the Circulation Department, there is a card catalogue of all the books in this Department,—that is, in the Branches of the Library. The Room is open to the public, for the consultation of this catalogue, on week days from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m.

NYPL Exhibition Room

Door of Exhibition Room New York Public Library
Door of Exhibition Room

Directly opposite the main entrance is the Exhibition Room, finished in white Vermont marble. The ceiling is supported by twenty-four columns of green veined white marble. The ceiling itself is elaborately and beautifully carved in oak. This room is devoted to exhibitions of rare books, manuscripts and prints. The exhibitions are changed from time to time, usually as often as three or four times a year. Open 9 a. m. to 6 p. m. on week days; 1 to 5 p. m. Sundays.

South side of Exhibition Room New York Public Library
South side of Exhibition Room