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 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,

one of the most important in the Library in its influence for the public welfare, including as it does, or should, everything relating to poverty, the causes and prevention of crime, charity and methods of aid and relief—in short, intelligent philanthropy in the broadest sense of the term.

When Brown vs. Board of Education, the school integration case of 1954, was being prepared for argument before the Supreme Court, lawyers for both sides worked for months in the Economics Division.

Billings introduced to NYPL its celebrated Slavonic, Oriental, and Jewish collections, not for political but for intellectual reasons; he stressed, for example, the importance of Russian-language materials to the scientist. (The Billings tradition of sophisticated cosmopolitanism still holds: the Library owns publications in more than 3,000 languages and dialects.) Other Billings innovations were the Public Documents Department, the Science and Technology Division, and the Newspaper Division. Billings insisted, way ahead of his time, on the scholarly importance of serials; for some years he spent half the entire purchasing appropriation on periodicals.

Even more imaginative was Billings’s personal decision to collect printed junk: pamphlets, gazettes, government publications, clippings, broadsides, catalogues, documents. The unparalleled richness of NYPL in these collections, which other libraries long disdained, has not only raised the value of the Library to business and government people, but has won the gratitude of scholars. Barbara Tuchman, for example, has written of her use of NYPL’s extraordinary file of regimental newspapers in her work on Stilwell; and Alfred Kazin of his use of nineteenth-century publishers’ catalogues in his work on American literary history.

Billings also invented NYPL’s unique system of classification, remarkable for its inelegant practicality;3 and Billings set the standard for that marvel of scholarship, the NYPL catalog. After a long day spent with the architects, trustees, and staff, Billings would take home a pile of periodicals from the Library and check off articles for the attention of the indexer. So began the tradition of cataloguing periodical articles, which was maintained on a scale that dazzled scholars used to other libraries, and which is now at an end, for money and perhaps energy as well have run out.

Billings made the New York Public Library just the sort of library New York needed, one which combined modern sophistication with ancient distinctions. Because he knew that knowledge was bigger than pedantry, and scholarship a part of life, he made a library in which incunabula and census rolls, gazettes and papyri, Shakespeare folios and Broadway playbills, medieval Hebrew commentaries and modern patents were all housed (as unfortunately they no longer are) under one roof. But the ideal of library excellence which he shared with the most active of the early trustees was not alone responsible for the distinction of NYPL; also available, at that time, were strong direction, money, intelligence, and hard, meticulous work—a combination fast vanishing from the management of our cultural institutions.

It is important to remember that Billings, Cadwalader, and the early financial benefactors of NYPL were concerned with scholarship, not mass education; the library they founded in the 1890s was a noncirculating research library for scholars. At that time New York, unlike other American cities, had no public branch library system, and had it not been for Andrew Carnegie, whose monomania was for circulating libraries, the city might never have gotten around to providing such a service for its largely immigrant population, then more in need of neighborhood libraries than of a central research collection.

When the city did move to establish branch libraries in the early 1900s, it contracted out to the New York Public Library the task of creating and operating a circulating system, and it was with considerable reluctance, and mainly a sense of noblesse oblige, that Billings and the trustees undertook NYPL’s secondary public function. As a still private and independent institution, NYPL contracted to spend Carnegie’s money on building branch libraries: NYPL would choose the sites and plan the buildings, and, at the expense of the city, NYPL would staff and operate the branch libraries, as it still does.4

The name, therefore, of the New York Public Library refers to an institution which performs two distinct functions: it maintains a research collection for scholars, from which materials never circulate; and it operates a branch library system, from which books circulate to as wide a public as possible. But the two functions, and the modern problems which beset them both, must be considered separately. Tax money—about 80 percent from the city, the rest from state and federal governments—pays for the branches. But by the terms of the New York Public Library’s charter, its own funds—endowments and benefactions—can be used only to support the research collections. Whether a strict separation of funds has in fact always been the case at NYPL is a question Dain raises even for the early years; as to the present, no one at the Library has been able to convince me that overhead and staff costs for the two divisions are scrupulously divided, or that the trustees have not occasionally preferred dipping into capital rather than aggressively pressing the city and the public for additional funds for the circulating branches. Those concerned about the future of Research at NYPL may not be reassured by the following statement from NYPL’s president: “Planning in this decade,” writes Mr. Couper in the current annual report, “simply has to cope with the one-library, not the two-library theory. We must in fact and function be The New York Public Library, not The Research Libraries and The Branch Libraries.”

In the 1950s and 1960s the trustees were widely if quietly criticized not only for failing to make the inflationary crisis a political issue, but also for neglecting to raise funds from those commercial interests in New York whose employees have always used NYPL’s resources for profit. (These include publishers, designers, industrialists, speculators, and lawyers, among many others.) But the trustees’ amiable vices of expansiveness and gentility in money matters were, according to Dain, apparent from the earliest years of NYPL board history.

In the 1900s, for example, the trustees omitted to determine in advance who would pay for the books stocked in the branch libraries. Similarly, in the 1960s, the trustees failed to determine in advance who would pay the moving and maintenance costs for the new Performing Arts facility at Lincoln Center, which turned out, of course—but to the trustees’ surprise—to be much more expensive to run at Lincoln Center than in its previous more modest quarters. Moreover, the new Mid-Manhattan Library, flagship of the circulating system, accounts in the 1970/71 Annual Report for a half-million dollar deficit resulting “chiefly from construction and renovation expenses of the Arnold Constable Building [in which Mid-Manhattan is housed]…and is expected to be eliminated through subsequent years’ income from fines which will be designated for such purpose.” (Actually the Mid-Manhattan deficit has been more expeditiously eliminated, at least on paper, in the current 1971/72 Annual Report, which includes a perplexing retroactive revision of 1970/71 figures.)

More recently, the computerization of NYPL’s catalogue entailed a sizable investment of capital funds agreed to by the trustees on the assumption that the Ford Foundation would pay the costs. Ford to date has not paid a penny of the cost of computerization, which incidentally has entailed (as few scholars are even aware) the phasing out of NYPL’s card catalog and its supplanting by an annual book catalog with monthly supplements.

Full responsibility for all such decisions at NYPL is vested in its self-perpetuating board of trustees, whose often lengthy and onerous service to the Library is performed without remuneration and without public gratitude. The trustees number about two dozen, and have always been over-whelmingly male, elderly, Protestant, and well-to-do. (One trustee is by tradition a Jew, and one a Catholic. The first woman was elected to the board in 1950, the first Negro in 1970.) By profession the trustees are most likely to be lawyers and bankers, and least likely to be actual users of the Library, for there has been virtually no representation over the years of writers, scholars, scientists, or professors.

The most important and the most active single member of the board is its chairman, until recently called President of the New York Public Library. In the years covered by Phyllis Dain’s history, and for long afterward, the president of NYPL together with its director (the top staff position) were for all practical purposes in control of NYPL affairs. When John E. Lockwood, partner in the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hope, and Hadley, was elected to the chairmanship by his fellow trustees in 1970, he insisted on major organizational changes at NYPL to cope with the financial crisis. He himself would be chairman of the board, not president; a new staff post, the presidency of NYPL, was created and filled not by a professional librarian (as the director has always been) but by a professional administrator—“someone like a college president,” as Mr. Lockwood puts it. Richard W. Couper has been since 1971 the first new-style NYPL president: he had in fact been an acting college president, at Hamilton, and came to the Library from the State Department of Education, where he was Deputy Administrator.

During Lockwood’s chairmanship, limitations have been set on the trustees’ age and term of service. He himself, as a result, is in his final year on the board. He has tried to encourage more active participation of all trustees by expanding the board’s “standing committees,” which now meet more often than the board as a whole and are concerned with special aspects of library management. These committees include not only trustees (and future trustees) but also outsiders presumably chosen to represent academic and community interests.

In Mr. Lockwood’s view, much NYPL policy making should in the future pass through these committees before action by the board. He cites the creation of the new catalog as the kind of decision which would be thoroughly discussed by the Committee on The Research Libraries, which in theory brings together scholars with banker- and lawyer-trustees to talk about the needs of Research. (A single scholar, the historian James T. Flexner, is listed in NYPL’s 1972 report as a member of the seven-member Research committee.) The actual future importance of such committees will depend upon the bias of Mr. Lockwood’s successor, the openness of NYPL’s staff to outside views, the quality of committee members, and the willingness of important NYPL users to give thought and time to library service.

During Mr. Couper’s presidency, the fund-raising division of the Library has been reorganized. Financial gifts to NYPL, mostly from commercial sources, quadrupled between 1971 and 1972. New York State support has been increased and consolidated in the State Education Department budget, to the point where the state is by far the most important source of tax money for the Research Division of NYPL: $2,825,000 in 1971/72. Public tax money from city and state now accounts for a larger share in the financial support of the Research Libraries than does income from private endowments, which declined between 1971 and 1972. However, in spite of the splendid new state support for Research at NYPL, enormous annual deficits persist, and are cited by the large, private, New York-based foundations as the reason for their refusal to contribute support to NYPL.5

The cutbacks in funds for libraries by the second Nixon Administration affected adversely the branch libraries, but not the Research Division, which has always been barred from federal funds under the Higher Education Acts, because it is not “a degree-granting institution of higher education.” Yet NYPL is the most important academic library in the city. Most of its users are affiliated as students or faculty with academic institutions—that is, with institutions that pay nothing for the support of NYPL and use collections which it would cost them millions of dollars to duplicate.

The city itself is woefully ill-supplied with academic libraries; except for Columbia University, no academic institution in New York has a library adequate to its needs. According to recent studies, New York’s own new public university, the City University of New York, accounts for between 18 and 25 percent of NYPL users. NYPL likes to point out that if the city paid 18 percent of the cost of NYPL it would provide $2.3 million a year for the research collections. In fact, a more realistic figure might be the $6 million that Columbia, serving fewer students than CUNY, spends annually to maintain its own great library.

When CUNY was legislated into existence in the mid-1960s as an amalgamation and extension of the pre-existing undergraduate colleges, the city made only one provision for a library of university quality: it located CUNY’s new graduate center in an office building at 33 West 42nd Street, directly across from the Public Library. Thus graduate students and faculty at CUNY could conveniently make use of NYPL resources, for which the city clearly intended to pay nothing whatever beyond the ongoing yearly housekeeping appropriation.6 Considerable pressure from various sources forced the inclusion of a special $1 million NYPL subsidy in the 1969 city budget for CUNY, but that subsidy has been killed in every subsequent year. In 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973, the city paid nothing whatever for the books and librarians at NYPL without which graduate work could not be done at CUNY, although CUNY’s budget (paid half by the city and half by the state) now approaches $500 million.

The cutback in hours and services at NYPL in 1971 was a direct result of the loss of the city’s $1 million CUNY subsidy, and the Library’s trustees pledge never to reinstate full service until that subsidy for research is reinstated. Yet the city’s failure to restore the subsidy has so far hardly been protested by the CUNY faculty, or by the unions which have succeeded in raising faculty salary scales at CUNY to the highest in the world. Nor has NYPL support come from private academic institutions in New York, all of which are partly and some largely dependent on NYPL’s resources. The only instance to date of effectively organized academic fund-raising for NYPL has been that of a student group: the Doctoral Students’ Council of CUNY.

Writers’ groups in New York, such as P.E.N. and the Authors League, have also failed to organize their members in support of NYPL. Yet formal organization of some kind for the responsible purpose of fund-raising will alone win for academics and writers, the major NYPL users, a share in control over the future of the Library. In this respect, New York’s actors, dancers, and musicians who organized to support the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center have set a pattern for emulation. Their spontaneous and effective activity gives substance to the rumor that the arts have a political following that universities, hospitals, and libraries do not, to cite the explanation commonly given for the arts’ escape from the recent cutback in federal funds for cultural activities.

Intellectuals have never been encouraged by NYPL itself to assume a share of the responsibility for its survival. In 1915, George L. Rives, then president of NYPL, wrote on the subject of board vacancies that it might be desirable “to see if we could get someone who is concerned in writing books, as well as reading them, but there does not seem to be any author of such reputation and standing as would justify his election, and who would possess the other qualities desirable in a Trustee.” Dain points out that, although Washington Irving had been president of the old Astor Library, such distinguished New Yorkers as William Dean Howells and E.L. Godkin were passed over for board membership in the early years, presumably because they lacked those “other qualities” that the trustees prized.

But the trustees’ continued insistence on those “other qualities,” whatever they are, may now be an expensive luxury. For these days the scions of old New York families may have less influence with the foundations and government bodies from which NYPL support must come than have writers, scholars, and professors. The case in point this year is Dr. Ronald S. Berman, who as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities has been in a position to offer $1,250,000 in matching funds for support of research at NYPL.

Once again this spring the $1 million subsidy for Research is to be voted on in city budget hearings, and inside NYPL there is considerable confidence that this year the subsidy will stand. Director John Cory pledges that, if the city votes the money, full service will be reinstated at NYPL in July. But Chairman of the Board John Lockwood warns that, for internal staff reasons, further delay may make it impossible to reinstate evening, weekend, and holiday hours at a later date.

If NYPL confidence for once proves justified, there will be cause for congratulation but hardly complacency, for the city’s million will be a mere installment on annual deficits, not a down payment on the Library’s future. To guarantee that future, and their own share in it, the Library’s principal users should begin to scrutinize NYPL’s policies and problems, to follow elections to its board, and to make effective demands of city and state officials on behalf of the Library. Where the great urban cultural institutions are concerned, political responsibility, like charity, begins at home.

This Issue

May 3, 1973