Saturday, May 23, 2020
May 23-24, 2020: LibraryStudying: The NYPL
[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to this special post on the NYPL!]
On three famous figures who helped with the century-long creation of the modern NYPL (along with John Jacob Astor, about whose 1848 posthumous donation I wrote in Tuesday’s post):
1) Washington Irving: With the help of Astor’s donation, the city constructed the Astor Library, which opened in 1854 as a free reference library (ie, its collection did not circulate). Irving, a longtime friend of Astor’s and one of the city’s and the nation’s preeminent early 19th century literary and cultural figures, served as President of the Astor Library’s Board of Trustees from 1848 until his 1859 death. Because of Irving’s strong interest in European culture (in contrast to more American-focused voices like the members of the period’s Young America movement), the library’s collection initially tilted heavily that way, an emphasis that continued to shape the library for many decades thereafter (as illustrated by the 1931 purchase of Russian Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich’s private library). But it’s fair to say that without such a literary heavyweight, the library might never have endured at all.
2) Samuel Tilden: In 1870, the New York State Legislature incorporated a previously independent collection, the Lenox Library, based on bibliophile James Lenox’s extensive holdings. But both the Astor and Lenox Libraries continued to struggle financially (and neither allowed their collections to circulate), and the entire system might have gone under were it not for a timely and sizeable donation from Tilden, the former NY Governor and 1876 presidential candidate. When he died in 1886, Tilden left much of his estate--$2.4 million—so that the city could “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” With that help of that endowment, the city was able to plan for a merger of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, and on March 23rd, 1895 (the date for the anniversary of which this week’s series exists) a number of prominent figures announced a formal plan for “the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.”
3) Andrew Carnegie: In order to carry out that plan, however, the NYPL needed the land and resources to create a number of new branch libraries across the city. And for that, it needed and received another, even more sizable donation, from one of the Gilded Age’s leading philanthropists (and robber barons, a contradiction about which I’ve written in this space before), Andrew Carnegie. In March 1901, Carnegie agreed to donate $5.2 million to help the NYPL construct 65 branch libraries, an act that he called in his letter to NYPL Director John S. Billings “a rare privilege.” “Sixty-five libraries at one stroke probably breaks the record,” he added, “but this is a day of big operations, and New York is soon to be the biggest of Cities.” While there’s probably a Platonic ideal version of public libraries that can exist without political and business figures like Tilden and Carnegie, the truth of such large operations is that they certainly do need significant support and resources, and all three of these figures were instrumental in providing them for the New York Public Library.
Memorial Day series starts Monday,
PS. Thoughts on the NYPL, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?