The New York Public Library main building during late stage construction in 1908, the lion statues not yet installed at the entrance
At the behest of Joseph Cogswell, John Jacob Astor placed a codicil in his will to bequeath $400,000 (equivalent of $11.6 million in 2018) for the creation of a public library. After Astor's death in 1848, the resulting board of trustees executed the will's conditions and constructed the Astor Library in 1854 in the East Village. The library created was a free reference library; its books were not permitted to circulate. By 1872, the Astor Library was described in a New York Times editorial as a "major reference and research resource", but, "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".
An act of the New York State Legislature incorporated the Lenox Library in 1870. The library was built on Fifth Avenue, between 70th and 71th Streets, in 1877. Bibliophile and philanthropist James Lenox donated a vast collection of his Americana, art works, manuscripts, and rare books, including the first Gutenberg Bible in the New World. At its inception, the library charged admission and did not permit physical access to any literary items.
copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library
Former Governor of New York and presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden believed that a library with citywide reach was required, and upon his death in 1886, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune—about $2.4 million (equivalent of $67 million in 2018)—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 Andrew Haswell Green, both trustees of the Tilden fortune, came up with an idea to merge two of the city's largest libraries.
Both the Astor and Lenox libraries were struggling financially. Although New York City already had numerous libraries in the 19th century, almost all of them were privately funded and many charged admission or usage fees. Bigelow, the most prominent supporter of the plan to merge the libraries found support in Lewis Cass Ledyard, a member of the Tilden Board, as well as John Cadwalader, on the Astor board. Eventually, John Stewart Kennedy, president of the Lenox board came to support the plan as well. On May 23, 1895, Bigelow, Cadwalader, and George L. Rives 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. On December 11, John Shaw Billings was named as the library's first director. The newly established library consolidated with the grass-roots New York Free Circulating Library in February 1901.
In March, Andrew Carnegie tentatively agreed to donate $5.2 million (equivalent of $157 million in 2018) to construct sixty-five branch libraries in the city, with the requirement that they be operated and maintained by the City of New York. The Brooklyn and Queens public library systems, which predated the consolidation of New York City, eschewed the grants offered to them and did not join the NYPL system; they believed that they would not get treatment equal to the Manhattan and the Bronx counterparts. Later in 1901, Carnegie formally signed a contract with the City of New York to transfer his donation to the city in order to enable it to justify purchasing the land for building the branch libraries. The NYPL Board of trustees hired consultants for the planning, and accepted their recommendation that a limited number of architectural firms be hired to build the Carnegie libraries: this would ensure uniformity of appearance and minimize cost. The trustees hired McKim, Mead & White, Carrère and Hastings, and Walter Cook to design all the branch libraries.
Cross-view of classical details in the entrance portico
The notable New York author Washington Irving was a close friend of Astor for decades and had helped the philanthropist design the Astor Library. Irving served as President of the library's Board of Trustees from 1848 until his death in 1859, shaping the library's collecting policies with his strong sensibility regarding European intellectual life. Subsequently, the library hired nationally prominent experts to guide its collections policies; they reported directly to directors John Shaw Billings (who also developed the National Library of Medicine), Edwin H. Anderson, Harry M. Lydenberg,
Franklin F. Hopper, Ralph A. Beals, and Edward Freehafer (1954–70). They emphasized expertise, objectivity, and a very broad worldwide range of knowledge in acquiring, preserving, organizing, and making available to the general population nearly 12 million books and 26.5 million additional items. The directors in turn reported to an elite board of trustees, chiefly elderly, well-educated, philanthropic, predominantly Protestant, upper-class white men with commanding positions in American society. They saw their role as protecting the library's autonomy from politicians as well as bestowing upon it status, resources, and prudent care.
Representative of many major board decisions was the purchase in 1931 of the private library of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich (1847–1909), uncle of the last tsar. This was one of the largest acquisitions of Russian books and photographic materials; at the time, the Soviet government had a policy of selling its cultural collections abroad for gold.
The military drew extensively from the library's map and book collections in the world wars, including hiring its staff. For example, the Map Division's chief Walter Ristow was appointed as head of the geography section of the War Department's New York Office of Military Intelligence from 1942 to 1945. Ristow and his staff discovered, copied, and loaned thousands of strategic, rare or unique maps to war agencies in need of information not available through other sources.
Main branch building
, the "Library Lion" statues, in the snowstorm of December 1948
The organizers of the New York Public Library, wanting an imposing main branch, chose a central site along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, on top of the Croton Reservoir. Dr. John Shaw Billings, the first director of the library, created an initial design that became the basis of the new building contain a huge reading room on top of seven floors of book stacks, combined with a system that was designed to get books into the hands of library users as fast as possible. The architectural firm Carrère and Hastings constructed the structure in the Beaux-Arts style, and the structure opened on May 23, 1911. It was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States.
The Library's historical seal, designed by sculptist Victor David Brenner
in 1909, best known as the designer of the Lincoln penny
. Though rarely used, the seated personification of wisdom appears on plaques at several branches.
The two stone lions guarding the entrance were sculpted by E.C. Potter and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers. Its main reading room was contemporaneously the largest of its kind in the world at 77 ft (23 m) wide by 295 ft (90 m) long, with 50-foot-high (15 m) ceilings. An expansion in the 1970s and 1980s added storage space under Bryant Park, directly west of the library. The structure was given a major restoration from 2007 to 2011, underwritten by a $100 million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, for whom the branch was subsequently renamed. Today, the branch's main reading room is equipped with computers with access to library collections and the Internet as well as docking facilities for laptops. A Fellows program makes reserved rooms available for writers and scholars, selected annually, and many have accomplished important research and writing at the library.
The Main Branch also contains several historic designations. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and designated a New York City designated landmark in 1967. The main reading room was separately made a New York City designated landmark in 2017.
Other research branches
Science, Industry and Business library
In the 1990s, the New York Public Library decided to relocate that portion of the research collection devoted to science, technology, and business to a new location. The library purchased and adapted the former B. Altman department store on 34th Street. In 1995, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the library, the $100 million Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of Manhattan, opened to the public. Upon the creation of the SIBL, the central research library on 42nd Street was renamed the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.
Today there are four research libraries that comprise the NYPL's research library system; together they hold approximately 44,000,000 items. Total item holdings, including the collections of the Branch Libraries, are 50.6 million. The Humanities and Social Sciences Library on 42nd Street is still the heart of the NYPL's research library system. The SIBL, with approximately 2 million volumes and 60,000 periodicals, is the nation's largest public library devoted solely to science and business. The NYPL's two other research libraries are the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, located at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, located at Lincoln Center. In addition to their reference collections, the Library for the Performing Arts and the SIBL also have circulating components that are administered as ordinary branch libraries.
Recto of a 16th-century music manuscript
found in the front pastedown of Drexel 4180
, a manuscript in the Music Division of the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library was not created by government statute. From its earliest days, the library was formed from a partnership of city government with private philanthropy. As of 2010, the research libraries in the system are largely funded with private money, and the branch or circulating libraries are financed primarily with city government funds. Until 2009, the research and branch libraries operated almost entirely as separate systems, but that year various operations were merged. By early 2010, the NYPL staff had been reduced by about 16 percent, in part through the consolidations.
In 2010, as part of the consolidation program, the NYPL moved various back-office operations to a new Library Services Center building in Long Island City. A former warehouse was renovated for this purpose for $50 million. In the basement, a new, $2.3 million book sorter uses bar codes on library items to sort them for delivery to 132 branch libraries. At two-thirds the length of a football field, the machine is the largest of its kind in the world, according to library officials. Books located in one branch and requested from another go through the sorter, which use has cut the previous waiting time by at least a day. Together with 14 library employees, the machine can sort 7,500 items an hour (or 125 a minute). On the first floor of the Library Services Center is an ordering and cataloging office; on the second, the digital imaging department (formerly at the Main Branch building) and the manuscripts and archives division, where the air is kept cooler; on the third, the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, with a staff of 10 (as of 2010) but designed for as many as 30 employees.
The NYPL maintains a force of NYC special patrolmen, who provide security and protection to various libraries, and NYPL special investigators, who oversee security operations at the library facilities. These officials have on-duty arrest authority granted by the New York Penal Law. Some library branches contract for security guards.
In February 2013, the New York and Brooklyn public libraries announced that they would merge their technical services departments. The new department is called BookOps. The proposed merger anticipates a savings of $2 million for the Brooklyn Public Library and $1.5 million for the New York Public Library. Although not currently part of the merger, it is expected that the Queens Library will eventually share some resources with the other city libraries. As of 2011, circulation in the New York Public Library systems and Brooklyn Public Library systems has increased by 59%. Located in Long Island City, BookOps was created as a way to save money while improving patrons service. The services of BookOps include the Selection Team which "acquires, describes, prepares, and delivers new items for the circulating collections of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and New York Public Library, and for the general collections of NYPL's research libraries." Under the Selection Team are the Acquisitions Department, the Cataloging Department, The Collections Processing Unit, and the Logistics Department. Before this facility opened, all the aforementioned departments were housed in different locations with no accountability between them, and items sometimes taking up to two weeks to reach their intended destination. BookOps now has all departments in one building and in 2015 sorted almost eight million items. The building has numerous rooms, including a room dedicated to caring for damaged books.
The consolidations and changes in collections have promoted continuing debate and controversy since 2004 when David Ferriero was named the Andrew W. Mellon Director and Chief Executive of the Research Libraries. NYPL had engaged consultants Booz Allen Hamilton to survey the institution, and Ferriero endorsed the survey's report as a big step "in the process of reinventing the library". The consolidation program has resulted in the elimination of subjects such as the Asian and Middle East Division (formerly named Oriental Division), as well as the Slavic and Baltic Division.
A number of innovations in recent years have been criticized. In 2004 NYPL announced participation in the Google Books Library Project. By agreement between Google and major international libraries, selected collections of public domain books would be scanned in their entirety and made available online for free to the public. The negotiations between the two partners called for each to project guesses about ways that libraries are likely to expand in the future. According to the terms of the agreement, the data cannot be crawled or harvested by any other search engine; no downloading or redistribution is allowed. The partners and a wider community of research libraries can share the content.
The sale of the separately endowed former Donnell Library in midtown provoked controversy. The elimination of Donnell was a result of the dissolution of children's, young adult and foreign language collections. The Donnell Media Center was also dismantled, the bulk of its collection relocated at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts as the Reserve Film and Video Collection, with parts of its collection redistributed. The site was redeveloped for a luxury hotel.
Several veteran librarians have retired, and the number of age-level specialists in the boroughs have been cut back.