New York Public Library

The New York Public Library (NYPL) is the largest public library in North America and is one of the United States’ most significant research libraries.  It is a privately managed, nonprofit corporation with a public mission, operating with both private and public financing. The historian David McCullough has described the New York Public Library as one of the five most important libraries in the United States, the others being the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.

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The New York Public Library has branches in the boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island. According to the American Library Association, the branch libraries comprise the twenty-sixth largest library in the United States. New York City’s other two boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, are served by the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library respectively. These libraries predate the consolidation of New York City. Taken as a whole the three library systems in the city of New York have 209 branches with 63 million items in their collections. Currently, the New York Public Library consists of 87 libraries: four non-lending research libraries, four main lending libraries, a library for the blind and physically challenged, and 77 neighborhood branch libraries in the three boroughs served. All libraries in the NYPL system may be used free of charge by all visitors. As of 2010, the research collections contain 44,507,623 items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.). The Branch Libraries contain 8,438,775 items. Together the collections total nearly 53 million items, a number surpassed only by the Library of Congress and the British Library.

Founding

Although New York City already had plenty of libraries in the 19th century, almost all of them were privately funded and many charged admission or usage fees. Meanwhile, other American cities, notably Boston, had led the way in providing public libraries that were open to the general masses, and The New York Times editorialized that besides educating the citizens, having a public library should be a matter of civic pride. On the other hand, there was opposition to the idea that the unlearned should be allowed unfettered access to knowledge; the goal of education was to keep the public docile and obedient. Progressives then countered that educating people in the basics but not letting them partake of further intellectual development was tantamount to a crime. Eventually, the progressive idea took greater hold, and several free circulating libraries were established, but they were all of small scale. Former Governor of New York and presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden felt that a library with city-wide reach was required, and upon his death in 1886, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune—about $2.4 million—to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York”. This money would sit untouched in a trust for several years, until John Bigelow, a New York attorney, and trustee of the Tilden fortune, came up with an idea to merge two of the city’s largest libraries.

New York Public Library Books

The Astor Library was a reference library founded at the suggestion of bibliographer Joseph Cogswell by German immigrant John Jacob Astor, the United States’ first multi-millionaire. It was located in the East Village and was constructed in 1854 (the building now houses The Public Theater) by Astor’s son William Backhouse Astor, Sr. It charged no admission for the use of its vast collection, but the books were not permitted to leave the premises, and the hours were limited. Cogswell was its first librarian and purchased much of its initial collection. It was a major reference and research resource, but, as an editorial in The New York Times put it,

“Popular it certainly is not, and, so greatly is it lacking in the essentials of a public library, that its stores might almost as well be under lock and key, for any access the masses of the people can get thereto.”

A German-born architect, Alexander Saeltzer, designed the building in Rundbogenstil style, then the prevailing style for public building in Germany. Astor funded expansions of the building designed by Griffith Thomas [1859] andThomas Stent [1881]. Both large expansions followed Saeltzer’s original design so seamlessly that an observer cannot detect that the edifice was built in three stages. In 1920, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society purchased the building. By 1965 it was in disuse and faced demolition. The Public Theater (then the New York Shakespeare Festival) persuaded the city to purchase it for use as a theater. It was converted for theater use by Giorgio Cavaglieri.

New York Public Library

The Lenox Library housed the private collection of philanthropist James Lenox, which consisted mainly of his extensive collection of rare books (which included the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the New World), manuscripts, and Americana. While usage of the materials was free of charge, admission tickets (such as those that are still required to gain access to the British Library) were still needed by potential users. Its primary audience was intended to be bibliophiles and scholars. The original Lenox Library building stood on Fifth Avenue, and was designed by the New York architect Richard Morris Hunt. It was torn down in 1912 for what is now the Frick Museum and Library. Both the Astor and Lenox Libraries were struggling financially. In both cases, the initial endowments were running low and not enough revenue was being generated. On May 23, 1895, Bigelow and representatives of the two libraries agreed to create “The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations”. The plan was hailed as an example of private philanthropy for the public good. The newly established library consolidated with The New York Free Circulating Library, one the more successful smaller private libraries, in February 1901, and the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie also donated $5.2 million to construct branch libraries, with the requirement that they be maintained by the City of New York. Later in 1901 the New York Public Library signed a contract with the City of New York to operate 39 branch libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Main branch building

New York Public Library

The organizers of the New York Public Library, wanting an imposing main branch, found a prominent, central site available at the two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets, then occupied by the no-longer-needed Croton Reservoir.Dr. John Shaw Billings, the first director of the library, created an initial design which became the basis of the new building (now known as the Schwarzman Building) on Fifth Avenue. Billings’s plan called for a huge reading room on top of seven floors of bookstacks combined with a system that was designed to get books into the hands of library users as fast as possible. Following a competition among the city’s most prominent architects, the relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the building. The result, a Beaux-Arts design, was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States. The

cornerstone was laid in May 1902, but work progressed slowly on the project, which eventually cost $9 million. In 1910, 75 miles (121 km) of shelves were installed, and it took a year to move and install the books that were in the Astor and Lenox libraries. On May 23, 1911, the main branch of the New York Public Library was officially opened in a ceremony presided over by President William Howard Taft. The following day, the public was invited. Tens of thousands thronged to the Library’s “jewel in the crown”. The opening day collection consisted of more than 1,000,000 volumes. The level of excellence in research and preservation continued with Dr. Henry Miller Lydenberg, who served as director between 1934–1941, seeing the New York Public Library through times of war and economic uncertainty. The New York Public Library instantly became one of the nation’s largest libraries and a vital part of the intellectual life of America. Library records for that day show that one of the very first items called for was N. I.Grot’s Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (“Ethical Ideas of Our Time”) a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy. The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book just six minutes later.

Two famous stone lions guarding the entrance were sculpted by Edward Clark Potter. They were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, in honor of the library’s founders. These names were transformed into Lady Astor and Lord Lenox (although both lions are male). In the 1930s they were nicknamed “Patience” and “Fortitude” by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He chose these names because he felt that the citizens of New York would need to possess these qualities to see themselves through the Great Depression. Patience is on the south side (the left as one faces the main entrance) and Fortitude on the north. The main reading room of the Research Library (Room 315) is a majestic 78 feet (23.8 m) wide by 297 feet (90.5 m) long, with 52 feet (15.8 m) high ceilings—lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony; lit by massive windows and grand chandeliers; furnished with sturdy wood tables, comfortable chairs, and brass lamps. Today it is also equipped with computers with access to library collections and the Internet and docking facilities for laptops. There are special rooms for notable authors and scholars, many of whom have done important research and writing at the Library

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Over the decades, the library system added branch libraries, and the research collection expanded until, by the 1970s, it was clear the collection eventually would outgrow the existing structure. In the 1980s the central research library added more than 125,000 square feet (12,000 m2) of space and literally miles of bookshelf space to its already vast storage capacity to make room for future acquisitions. This expansion required a major construction project in which Bryant Park, directly west of the library, was closed to the public and excavated. The new library facilities were built below ground level and the park was restored above it. On July 17, 2007, the building was briefly evacuated and the surrounding area was cordoned off by New York police because of a suspicious package found across the street. It turned out to be a bag of old clothes.

In the three decades before 2007, the building’s interior was gradually renovated. On December 20, 2007, the library announced it would undertake a three-year, $50 million renovation of the building exterior, which has suffered damage from weathering and pollution. The renovation was completed on time, and on February 2, 2011 the refurbished facade was unveiled The restoration design was overseen by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., whose previous projects include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s limestone facades and the American Museum of Natural History, made of granite. These renovations were underwritten by a $100-million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose name will be inscribed at the bottom of the columns which frame the building’s entrances.

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