The Library Murder Case

The New York Public Library: A History of its Founding and Early Years

by Phyllis Dain
New York Public Library, 466 pp., $15.00

Annual Report 1971/72, The New York Public Library

Office of Public Information, New York Public Library, 32 pp.

New York Public Library lion
New York Public Library lion; drawing by David Levine

The New York Public Library is one of the four greatest research libraries in the world, the newest and the most threatened. Founded three quarters of a century ago as a private institution, NYPL has long performed the kind of public service for American scholars that government libraries do in Paris and London. For its collections are so nearly complete, its rarities so unusual, its catalogue so superb that scholars everywhere in America (and many from abroad) know they can turn to NYPL as a final and secure resort when hunting an edition, a pamphlet, a folio that can be found nowhere else.

As a research library NYPL was conceived and has been maintained as a permanent and near-complete repository of knowledge. Its materials do not circulate, but must be consulted in its own reading rooms—mostly in the central building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. This is true also of the Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Museum Reading Room, but uniquely American in scale was, until recently, the liberality with which NYPL provided access to its reading rooms. The 42nd Street building was open 365 days of the year from 9:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night to everyone (except the very young) who walked in off the street, with no card of admission, no identification or reference required. By such liberality NYPL acknowledged the intellectual needs of a wide, poor, and anonymous reading public. NYPL became one of the world’s finest examples of a fusion of elitist excellence with the democratic ideal, of private philanthropy with public service.

The multimillion-dollar deficits that now threaten this remarkable institution have been at least ten years in the making, but the public at large became aware of NYPL’s financial crisis only in 1971, when the Library was forced to shut its doors to most students and working people: that is, to eliminate weekend, holiday, and evening service. At the same time, NYPL closed the Science and Technology Division (where much of the early work on the Manhattan Project was done) and announced that the Performing Arts collection, recently moved to Lincoln Center, would also have to be closed to the public.

Support from some quarters—commercial, artistic, and governmental—made it possible for NYPL to reinstate some but not all of these services. A crisis remains, of which annual deficits in the neighborhood of $2 million and the concomitant cutbacks in hours are only the tip of the iceberg. The vast and icy reality, what NYPL’s chairman of the board calls “hidden deficits,” is the Library’s inability to take those steps which alone can preserve the collections for future generations of readers: air conditioning to halt deterioration from air pollution; providing for fire prevention; building to cope with the current proliferation of printed materials; modernizing; and raising further millions of dollars to support acquisitions in an age…

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