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Reading Publics (2015) – Metropolitan Archivist – Medium

Sandra Roff

Tom Glynn. Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754–1911. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. 447 pages. Paperback. $22.50.

“The opening of the marble palace on Forty-Second Street was the culmination of more than a century and a half of public library development on the island of Manhattan…This book is a history of those early public libraries” (1). Tom Glynn, with an obvious love of the subject, tells this history in detail revealing how library services were provided for different interest groups throughout the nineteenth-century, and how by the end of the century, political and class differences aside the New York Public Library was founded for the good of all New Yorkers.

Tom Glynn begins his story in 1754 with the New York Society Library, whose founders believed that the Library served the public good by educating a republican citizenry. The library operated as a private corporation for those who could afford to buy shares for the privilege of borrowing books. The author chronicles the early history of the Society Library, and the influence of elitism on its growth and development. What followed were libraries devoted to special interest groups, beginning with the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in 1785. It began as a fraternal organization and opened a library for apprentices in 1820. This library expanded its readership to include not only apprentices but anyone who paid a small annual fee. With the rise of industrialization and the new economic relationships of labor and management there was an impetus for reform. Among the many causes reformers took up was education as a means of self-improvement, shifting the purpose of the General Society library to moral and cultural enrichment. A progressive change came in 1861 when the library began admitting women to the library and they quickly became the fastest growing class of readers.

Interwoven into Tom Glynn’s narrative is the development of the professionalization of librarianship. The role of the librarian at the General Society Library evolved and the preparation of catalogs of the library’s holdings received considerable attention.

Another early library was the New-York Historical Society, founded in 1805 with the mission to collect materials pertaining to New York. Closely allied to elitist New York City, it first housed its library in space provided by the New York Society Library, and membership was restricted to those with social connections. There was a rise in the popularity of history in the first half of the nineteenth-century, and the Society took advantage of this by publishing several volumes of historical documents. The library was a valuable resource for scholars but by the mid-nineteenth century it had not yet become a significant resource for historical research. “And certainly the library was never intended, in the words of Samuel Osgood at its dedication, ‘to be an instrument of popular education’ ”(99). The Society required non-members who wanted to gain admission to obtain a recommendation from a member who knew the applicant.

Another early New York City library was the American Bible Society founded in 1816 with the specialized purpose to publish and distribute Bibles throughout the United States and abroad. The following year the library of the Society was founded to collect all the Bibles they published and those that were donated. John Pintard, one of New York’s first families, and the founder of the New-York Historical Society, was responsible for the early development of the Bible Society library. Devoted to civic progress he held office in eleven organizations in 1817 other than the Bible Society and the Historical Society. The Bible Society during its early years was optimistic that its evangelical aims would be realized, but with the influx of immigrants into the country, the Society’s original optimism waned.

The author next tackles the history of subscription libraries in New York. “The history of the city’s subscription libraries…sheds light upon a tension between public purpose and presumably private pleasure” (121). The Mercantile Library Association of the City of New York was founded in 1821, to serve as an organ of self-improvement and moral welfare for young clerks. By mid-century, it was the most popular circulating library in the city with a collection of over 42,000 volumes. Modest annual fees kept membership high. The Library was anxious to recruit female readers and provided special accommodations for them. They were encouraged to join as clerks and not subscribers to keep their annual fees low. Tom Glynn omitted a little known library from this story — the Women’s Library. It opened in 1860 and was on the second floor of New York University with a collection of 4,000 volumes. Close to the Mercantile Library and Cooper Union, both of which admitted women, the Women’s Library maintained flexible hours and was free to those women who could not afford the one-dollar annual subscription fee. The YMCA circulating library was another popular choice for young men who paid one dollar a year for borrowing privileges, but there any young man could read free. Later in the century competition for the subscription libraries were bookstores that sold books at a reasonable price that middle-class New Yorkers could afford.

The founding of a library open freely to everyone was getting closer to fruition. The Astor and the Lenox libraries had important research collections and in 1895 they merged with the Samuel J. Tilden Foundation to form what is now the New York Public Library’s Reference and Research Services. Peter Cooper, a wealthy inventor and manufacturer, opened the Cooper Union in 1859 to instruct the citizenry in practical science and the arts. He provided a free reading room for the community and the Cooper Union became the most popular and publically available collection in New York in the second half of the nineteenth century. Cooper Union offered a wonderful educational opportunity for the working classes of the city, but by the end of the nineteenth century it was out of sync with the movement to professionalize librarianship. When Melville Dewey became chief librarian of the Columbia College library in 1883, the crusade took off. The Columbia School of Library Service opened in 1887, with the mission of training men and women for the public library movement geared to the education of the working class. Dewey’s decision to admit women to the Library School was not popular with the Board of Trustees and he resigned in 1888. The author mistakenly claimed that Mary Wright Plummer, one of the students in his first class of the Library School established a library school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y in 1895. The school opened in 1890, but in 1895, Ms. Plummer took over its leadership.

The impetus to change the direction of library development in New York City was the passage of the Library Law of 1886 which offered to libraries that made their collections freely accessible to the public up to $5,000 for every 100,000 volumes it circulated. The new free circulating libraries eventually consolidated to form the Circulation Division of the New York Public Library; an early step toward a public library system. The New York Free Circulating Library was the first free circulating library and it predated the passage of the Library Law of 1886. By 1900 it had eleven branches in Manhattan and in 1901 it consolidated with the New York Public Library and formed the core of its circulation department. Other free circulating libraries opened in the city, including those associated with settlement houses and religious groups. By the end of the nineteenth-century the citizenry wanted a public library that served all New Yorkers.

The founding of the New York Public Library took almost two decades. First was the creation of the Reference Department which was non-circulating, and the second was establishing the Circulation Department, consisting of branch libraries all over the city. On May 23, 1895 the Astor, Tilden and Lenox corporations merged to create the New York Public Library. The trustees hired John Shaw Billings as the director to oversee the development of the new library. To implement the first phase of development New York City agreed to close the reservoir at 42nd street and build an 87,500 building on the site. Here would be the reference collection freely open to the public, as well as a circulating library. Andrew Carnegie, with his gift of $5.2 million to construct branches for the benefit of the masses secured the establishment of circulating libraries. He wanted the local government to appropriate tax money each year to support the libraries, which they did. When the central building opened in 1911, it was a new model for a public library — to serve everyone.

Tom Glynn has written a detailed and extremely well researched volume. This will serve historians of education and library history well and perhaps be a jumping off point for additional studies of New York City Libraries.


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