History of The New York Public Library
The origins of this remarkable institution date back to the time when New York was emerging as one of the world's most important cities. By the second half of the 19th century, New York had already surpassed Paris in population and was quickly catching up with London, then the world's most populous city. Fortunately, this burgeoning and somewhat brash metropolis counted among its citizens men who foresaw that if New York was indeed to become one of the world's great centers of urban culture, it must also have a great library.
Prominent among them was one-time governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886), who upon his death 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."
At the time of Tilden's death, New York already had two libraries of considerable importance — the Astor and Lenox libraries — but neither could be termed a truly public institution in the sense that Tilden seems to have envisioned. The Astor Library was created through the generosity of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), a German immigrant who at his death was the wealthiest man in America. In his will he pledged $400,000 for the establishment of a reference library in New York. The Astor Library opened its doors in 1849, in the building which is now the home of The New York Shakespeare Festival's Joseph Papp Public Theater. Although the books did not circulate and hours were limited, it was a major resource for reference and research.
New York's other principal library during this time was founded by James Lenox and consisted primarily of his personal collection of rare books (which included the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the New World), manuscripts, and Americana. Located on the site of the present Frick Collection, the Lenox Library was intended primarily for bibliophiles and scholars. While use was free of charge, tickets of admission were required.
By 1892, both the Astor and Lenox libraries were experiencing financial difficulties. The combination of dwindling endowments and expanding collections had compelled their trustees to reconsider their mission. At this juncture, John Bigelow, a New York attorney and Tilden trustee, devised a bold plan whereby the resources of the Astor and Lenox libraries and the Tilden Trust would be combined to form a new entity, to be known as The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Bigelow's plan, signed and agreed upon on May 23, 1895, was hailed as an unprecedented example of private philanthropy for the public good.
Building an Architectural Masterpiece
The site chosen for the home of the new Public Library was the Croton Reservoir, a popular strolling place that occupied a two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. Dr. John Shaw Billings, one of the most brilliant librarians of his day, was named director.
Billings knew exactly what he wanted. His design, briefly sketched on a scrap of paper, became the early blueprint for the majestic structure that has become the landmark building, known for the lions without and the learning within. Billings's plan called for an enormous reading room topping seven floors of stacks and the most rapid delivery system in the world to get the Library's resources as swiftly as possible into the hands of those who requested them.
Following an open competition among scores of the city's most prominent architects, the relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the new library. The result, regarded as the apogee of Beaux-Arts design, was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. Before construction could begin, however, some 500 workers had to spend two years dismantling the reservoir and preparing the site. The cornerstone was finally laid in May 1902.
Work progressed slowly but steadily on the monumental Library which would eventually cost $9 million to complete. During the summer of 1905, the huge columns were put into place and work on the roof was begun. By the end of 1906, the roof was finished and the designers commenced five years of interior work. In 1910, 75 miles of shelves were installed to house the immense collections.
More than one million books were set in place for the official dedication of the Library on May 23, 1911—some 16 years to the day since the historic agreement creating the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations had been signed. The ceremony was presided over by President William Howard Taft and was attended by Governor John Alden Dix and Mayor William J. Gaynor.
The following morning, New York's very public Public Library officially opened its doors. The response was overwhelming. Between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors streamed through the building the first day it was open. 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 Tolstoi. The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book six minutes later!
Creating the Neighborhood Libraries
In the meantime, the Library had established its circulating department after consolidating with The New York Free Circulating Library in February 1901. A month later, steel baron Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2 million to construct a system of branch libraries throughout New York City (what are now the five boroughs having been consolidated into the City of New York in 1898), provided the City would supply the sites and fund the libraries' maintenance and operations.
Later that year The New York Public Library contracted with the City of New York to operate 39 Carnegie branches in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens had founded separate library systems before the consolidation of the city; the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library remain separate entities). Thus, from the earliest days of The New York Public Library, a tradition of partnership with the city and outreach to the community was established, and continues to this day.
Almost overnight, The New York Public Library became a vital part of the intellectual fabric of American life. Among its earliest beneficiaries were recently arrived immigrants, for whom the Library provided contact with the literature and history of their new country as well as the heritage that these people brought with them.
The New York Public Library Today
Today the Library’s 92 locations include four research centers—focusing on the humanities and social sciences, the performing arts, Black history and culture, and business and industry—and a network of neighborhood libraries throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. Throughout the system, the Library provides free and open access to its physical and electronic collections and information, as well as to its services for people of all ages, from toddlers to teens and adults. Research and circulating collections combined total more than 54 million items, among them materials for the visually impaired. In addition, each year the Library presents exhibitions and thousands of public programs, including classes in technology, literacy, researching, and English for Speakers of Other Languages. The Library receives millions of visitors through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at nypl.org.