The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/New York Public Library

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Edition of 1920. See also New York Public Library on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, was established 23 May 1895 by a consolidation of the Astor, Lenox and Tilden libraries. Legally this was an amalgamation of three corporations known as the Tilden Trust, the Trustees of the Astor Library and the Trustees of the Lenox Library. From these institutions 22 trustees were selected from the 33 governing members of the former associations, and to these were added ex officio the mayor, comptroller and the president of the board of aldermen of the city, to serve as members of the new corporation. The official title of the corporation is The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Vacancies occurring in the board are filled by vote of the remaining members. The agreement of consolidation provided for the establishment and maintenance of a free public library and reading-room in the city of New York, with such branches as might be deemed advisable for the continued promotion of the objects and purposes of these several corporations. The Astor Library (266,147 volumes) was founded in 1849 by John Jacob Astor, and his endowment was increased, and land and buildings added, by the beneficence of various members of the Astor family, to a value of $941,000 at the time of the merging. The Lenox Library (86,000 volumes) was founded by James Lenox, who gave land on Fifth avenue, between 70th and 71st streets, large funds and valuable collections of Bibles, manuscripts and Americana. It received subsequently large endowments from his sister, Miss Henrietta Lenox, from Mrs. R. L. Stuart and others, the total endowment amounting to $505,000. The Tilden Trust (20,000 volumes), incorporated in 1887, was created by the will of Samuel J. Tilden, made in 1884, which gave his entire residuary estate to trustees to establish and maintain a free library and reading-room. A long contest in the courts resulted, before the termination of the suit, in an agreement of compromise by which the Tilden Trust became possessed of over $2,000,000.

In 1901 the New York Free Circulating Library with 11 branches and 160,000 books was added by consolidation, and in the same year the Saint Agnes Free Library and the Washington Heights Free Library joined the combination. In 1903 were added the New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind and the Aguilar Free Library with four branches; and in 1904 the Harlem Free Library, the University Settlement Library, the Webster Free Library and the five branches of the Catholic Free Circulating Library. In 1901 Mr. Andrew Carnegie gave to the city a total of $5,200,000 for library buildings and equipments and with the portion of the gift allotted to the New York Public Library 37 branch libraries were housed as a part of its activities.

The trustees of the New York Public Library soon after the consolidation in 1885 determined to pursue a liberal policy and to create a great library system not only for the use of scholars, but for the people. The best permanent site for the future great library was considered to be in Bryant Park, on Fifth avenue, between 40th and 42d streets, on the site of the city reservoir, which had become obsolete and was practically unused. On 25 March 1896 the trustees made a formal address to the mayor asking aid from the city in securing the site of the reservoir, and in May 1896 the legislature passed a law authorizing the removal of the reservoir and the lease of the land to the library. On 19 May 1897, another act was passed providing for the construction by the city of a library building on the reservoir site, and for its lease to the library, which act was amended in 1900, removing the limit of cost. On 10 November Carrère and Hastings were selected as architects for the new building, and on 1 December the plans were approved by the city. After delays, owing to the failure to appropriate funds for the work, the removal of the reservoir was begun on 6 June 1899 and the new building was opened to the public on 23 May 1911. Exclusive of the books and collections which it contains, it had been erected and furnished at an expense of about $9,000,000, on ground valued at about $8,000,000.

The new library building was not intended to be a great monumental building which would look as well from one point of view as another and which would be fundamentally an example of pure architectural form, but rather an example of dignified and elegant city street architecture. It is described by the architects as “modern Renaissance, more or less of the Louis XVI period, with such modifications as the conditions and needs of our age have suggested.” The façade on Fifth avenue has poise and character and seems to issue to the people “an invitation to enter rather than a command.” The total quantity of constructive marble in the building is about 375,000 cubic feet, quarry measure. It came mostly from the quarries of Vermont. The general plan is rectangular, 390 feet long on the Fifth avenue front, and 270 feet in depth. It is built around two inner courts and has four floors besides the cellar. The sides and front are comparatively low, the top floor being lighted by windows and skylights; while the centre and rear parts rise much higher and are lighted entirely by windows. The “stack” under the main reading-room is of steel, seven decks in height, with 63.3 miles of shelving — a capacity of 2,500,000 volumes. In addition to this, the special reading-rooms have a shelf capacity of 500,000 volumes. The main reading-room floor has an area of half an acre and there are seats for 768 readers. On its open shelves are 25,000 selected volumes covering every department of human knowledge.

Of the great libraries of the world, the New York Public Library is fourth in size, possessing in 1915 a total of 2,459,996 books and pamphlets. It is notably strong in famous old manuscripts and rare editions; illuminated and Oriental manuscripts; works on American history and genealogy; the history of printing; books belonging in the Oriental, Hebrew and Slavonic departments, and works on the history and illustration of ancient and modern art in all its phases.

The books, manuscripts and maps owned by the library at the close of the year 1918 were valued at $3,155,354.15, and the paintings, statuary and other works of art at $266,245.

The library is conducted in two divisions; as a free reference library and a free circulating library; the latter division having 46 branches in various parts of the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Richmond. (The boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have each its own separate library organization). The number of books in the reference department on 31 Dec. 1918 totaled 1,091,703, and the number of pamphlets 319,263. The circulating department had 1,187,139 volumes. During 1918 the number of volumes consulted in the reference-rooms, called for by signed slip, was 2,063,265. No record is kept of the volumes taken from the open shelves in any of the reading-rooms. The number of persons entering the library building in 1918 was 2,528,657. The number of readers registering by name in the special reading-rooms was 964,587. The readers in the newspaper-room do not register.

In the library building, besides the great reading-room there are 18 special reading-rooms, devoted to the following named departments: Americana (with 46,000 volumes); genealogy (30,000 volumes); music (22,000 volumes and pieces); art (25,000 volumes); prints (20,000 volumes); Jewish literature (24,000 volumes); Oriental literature (20,000 volumes and pamphlets); Slavonic literature (23,000 volumes and periodicals); science (35,000 volumes); economics and public documents (400,000 books and pamphlets); patents; technology (65,000 volumes); current periodicals (400); newspapers (60 dailies and 25 foreign); maps; manuscripts; library for the blind (8,000 raised letter volumes and 5,500 music scores); and the children's reading-room (12,000). There is also a library school giving a two years' course, with, in 1918, 48 pupils. The library has a complete printing office and bindery. The former supplied in 1918 388,613 printed catalogue cards and 8,956,897 pieces of printed stationery. The bindery bound 34,678 volumes and handled over 14,000 pieces of miscellaneous work.

In the circulating department the number of books issued from all the branches for home reading in 1918 was 9,627,505, of which total 3,955,113 were children's books. The Central Branch, located in the library building, issued 616,372 volumes in the year, an average of 1,700 books per day, and 130 for each working hour. The aggregate attendance for the year in the reading-rooms connected with the branch libraries was 3,630,074.

The extension division of the library covers 6 sub-branches and 411 agencies in outlying districts, community centres, schools, business offices, factories, fire and police stations, hospitals, prisons, etc. This service is continually being extended, the agencies being expanded into sub-branches, and the latter into full-fledged branches as the library needs of the locality may develop. The yearly circulation of books controlled by this department numbers 195,330 volumes.

The library is managed by a director and staff of 1,224 assistants (in 1915). Of these, 534 were in the reference department and 679 in the circulating department. The reference library and the Central Branch of the circulating department are maintained entirely by the income from the library's endowment funds and without financial aid by the city. The library issues annually a ‘Handbook,’ and publishes weekly the Staff News for information of the personnel.