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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.

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 of galloping inflation, which attacks a free library perhaps more than any other institution. The recent devaluation of the dollar provides an example: NYPL has no way to pass on to the public the increased cost of its purchases abroad—which represent more than half of its annual acquisitions.

Yet a curious apathy toward the Library’s plight seems to obtain among the community that is most affected by the present reductions in NYPL service, and that should be most concerned with the decisions made for its future: New York’s scholars, writers, teachers, and scientists. The cause is perhaps a persistent confusion about the nature of the Library as an institution: Is NYPL privately or publicly controlled? Philanthropically or tax-supported? Does it serve circulation or research purposes? Academic or commercial functions?

Answers to many of these questions are now available in The New York Public Library: A History of its Founding and Early Years by Phyllis Dain, a work of compelling interest to all those concerned not only with the future of the Library but of New York itself.1 For like NYPL, the museums, opera houses, concert halls, teaching hospitals, universities, and other facilities for research and experiment in the city cannot survive in the last quarter of this century, as they have done in the past, on the benefactions of a few members of the limited class of the established rich. All these institutions require donations from a wide public and extensive government support: tax money, most of which, during a national administration committed to “revenue sharing,” will come, if it comes at all, primarily from city and state. In the 1970s, at least, the survival of our cultural institutions will depend on the local involvement in their affairs of an informed, a generous, and a voting public.

The full name of NYPL, cut in stone over its Fifth Avenue entrance and used on all its official documents, emphasizes its origin in the philanthropy of a few socially prominent old New York families: “The New York Public Library: Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.” Astor is for the old Astor Library, created in 1848 by a codicil in the will of John Jacob Astor which provided $400,000 for the establishment of a public research library in New York. (A relatively small sum, as Dain points out, for it was the only substantial philanthropy of the richest man in America, whose estate amounted to $20 million.) The Lenox Library, founded in 1870 by another wealthy New Yorker, James Lenox, himself a collector, was New York’s other major research library.

In the 1880s and 1890s the collections at Astor and Lenox were growing rapidly out of date; they were poorly catalogued, wretchedly lighted, and extremely difficult of access. The two libraries were awkwardly separated, the Lenox uptown, on the land where the Frick now stands, and the Astor downtown (preserved as a landmark, the building is now the home of the New York Public Theater). Moreover, the Astor and Lenox closed down in the early afternoons, hours before workingmen could use them, and stayed closed weekends and much of the summer, when genteel folk left town.

Their consolidation (along with other smaller libraries) into one central research library became possible through a trust established in 1886 by the will of Samuel J. Tilden, who left his entire estate, about $5 million, to establish “an institution to be known as the Tilden Trust, with capacity to establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” Of all NYPL benefactors, Governor Tilden most deserves to be called munificent. He was most cognizant of public need, perhaps because he was one of the rare rich New Yorkers of the day who was also a politician. Not so munificent, however, were Tilden’s surviving relations, whose court battles to break the will diminished the resources of the Tilden Trust by several million dollars.

Neither Library trustees nor elected officials were primarily responsible for the liberal hours of access that became, from the start, a NYPL tradition. Dain clearly demonstrates that credit goes to the turn-of-the-century New York press. To the elite rich on the one hand and the apathetic politicians on the other, it was articles and editorials in the World, the Journal, the Sun, the Post, the Times, the Herald, and so on that presented the public case for wider, longer library service. Because of journalistic agitation, a rider requiring broad hours of access was attached to the New York State law of 1897 which made Astor/Lenox consolidation a reality and was the practical beginning of the institution we know as The New York Public Library.

The law authorized the expenditure of New York City funds on a new public library building on 42nd Street, where a superfluous city reservoir then stood. The final contract between NYPL and the City of New York established that the city would pay for constructing the building and NYPL would in return, as a private institution, maintain a research library and make it available without charge to the public in a reading room open twelve hours every day, including holidays. This contract still stands, and presumably still has the force of law.

After New York City paid for the central building on 42nd Street—paid generously, in fact, for the costs rose to $9 million—municipal support for the research library stopped completely until 1948, when the city agreed to pay housekeeping expenses only, the costs of cleaning and protecting the building, but nothing for the library inside, nothing for books, nothing for staff. (The city pays considerably less than $1 million a year for NYPL housekeeping, or roughly 7 percent of total annual research library expenses, now well over $13 million.)

Completed in 1911, the central building remains a noble structure, though now falling into decay, and it is still in many ways ideally suited to library purposes. Its luxurious surfaces, dramatic approaches, and spacious interiors give the researcher a remarkable effect of welcome and comfort rather than of pomposity as is common in other public buildings of the same era. The millions of New Yorkers and library visitors from out-of-state and abroad who enter by the great lion-flanked stone steps on Fifth Avenue find it an inspiring experience—that is, if anyone goes that way any more. A niggardly economy recently shut down the Fifth Avenue checkroom, with the effect of forcing the knowledgeable visitor to enter by the basement side door on 42nd Street, which has all the elegance of a subway turnstile.

That the building works as a library, not just as a monument to social and civic pride, is due to the participation in every detail of its planning by the first director of NYPL, John Shaw Billings, with whom originated the long-lasting NYPL staff traditions of dedication, brilliance, and scholarship. Much of Dain’s history is a tribute to the independent genius of Dr. Billings,2 and to the support he commanded from both staff and trustees. NYPL’s distinctive style, a blend of the practical with the scholarly, dates from Billings’s reign over the Library from 1896 to 1913. It resulted from his fruitful cooperation, both financial and intellectual, with John L. Cadwalader, chairman of the board of trustees during most of that period.

Both men were committed, as their private memos reveal, to a single goal: the creation of a great library valued in and of itself. They were indifferent (snobbish is closer to the truth) to special interests and communities, and dreaded contamination by what they called “the Tammany bacillus.” No political considerations troubled their elitism, for among themselves and their families and fellow club members, the trustees could raise enough money to satisfy Billings’s demands on behalf of the Library. Their tone was, to modern ears, offensive, but their work was mighty. Billings, for example, described the Economics Division, which he introduced to NYPL, in the following terms when soliciting a special appropriation from the trustees. It was, he said,

  1. 1

    Dr. Dain is a professor of library science at Columbia University. Although produced with the cooperation of NYPL’s staff and based on its archives, her History is an independent scholarly study. Planned as the first of two volumes, it extends to the opening of the 42nd Street building in 1911 and a little beyond, or about as far as the 1923 History of the New York Public Library by Harry M. Lydenberg, then NYPL’s Chief Reference Librarian. Because of its outsider’s viewpoint, its technical scholarship, and its broad view of historical and social matters, Dain’s History now supersedes Lydenberg’s for the founding years.

    Where points made below refer to NYPL’s present and recent past, I am benefiting by information generously provided by several members of the current NYPL staff, especially Director John M. Cory, Chief of the Research Libraries James W. Henderson, and Vice President George Labalme, Jr., none of whom is responsible for my emphases, or for my simplifications of very complicated matters. I have also made use of Search and Research: The Collections and Uses of the New York Public Library (1961), by William K. Zinsser.

  2. 2

    He was a surgeon of international reputation, and a self-trained librarian and bibliographer of great distinction. Before he retired from the US Army in 1895, at the age of fifty-seven, Dr. Billings had founded what Dain calls “those monumental contributions to medical and bibliothecal science, the Surgeon General’s Library and its Index-Catalogue and Index Medicus.”

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