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.

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