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"The Biggest Library in the World Opens Today": NYPL in the Yiddish Press
You probably already know that the New York Public Library's flagship building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street will celebrate its centennial on May 23. There will be galas, games, lectures, and all kinds of activities for young and old. But what about opening day in 1911? There was less gaming, probably, and no smartphone apps to help you locate treasures. Nevertheless, according to newspaper accounts, it was a grand event for New York and the entire country, attended not only by Mayor William Jay Gaynor and Governor John Alden Dix, but even by President William Howard Taft.
In his speech to the assembled dignitaries, President Taft said, "This day crowns a work of National Importance. The dedication of this beautiful structure for the spread of knowledge among the people marks not only the consummation of a noteworthy plan for bringing within the grasp of the humblest and poorest citizen the opportunity for acquiring information on every subject of every kind, but it furnishes a model and example for other cities which have been struggling with the same problem, and points for them the true way."
New York's many ethnic communities, which included some of those "humblest and poorest citizens," made note of the event. Here's a look at how opening day was covered by the Yiddish- and English-language Jewish press.
The Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) was by far the most popular Yiddish newspaper in New York, with over 113,800 readers in 1911. Although it became a weekly in 1983, the Forward is still being published in Yiddish. On May 23, 1911, the Forward printed a brief front-page article headlined "Di greste laybreri in der velt efent zikh haynt (The biggest library in the world opens today)"—a bit of an exaggeration, for although the Library was and is among the world's biggest, it wasn't the biggest. (That honor probably belongs to the Library of Congress). The article notes that the Library already had 373,000 books, and that the Trustees expected the Library to acquire no fewer than four million books in the next 25 years.
Curiously, the Forward made no mention of the part of the Library that would be of particular interest to the paper's readership—the Dorot Jewish Division, or, as it was then called, the Hebrew Department. The Yidishes tageblatt (Jewish Daily News), on the other hand, did devote a paragraph to the Jewish Division. The Division, reported the paper, was under the direction of the energetic and capable librarian A.S. Freidus. In its former home in the Astor Library, the Division was a gathering place for the greatest Jewish scholars and writers in New York. In its new home, the size and usefulness of the collection will be even greater, said the Tageblatt. The paper reported that the new building was beautifully and tastefully built, with care taken to include every modern convenience. The reporter also wrote that the building was two blocks long, from 42nd Street to 44th Street(!). (The building stretches from 40th Street to 42nd Street). Perhaps the reporter was already celebrating too much to notice the difference.
The day after the opening, May 24, 1911, the Varhayt (Truth) featured a large front-page photograph of the Main Reading Room, with an article titled "New library opens with beautiful ceremonies." The Varhayt, like the Forward, let its civic pride show by calling the Library "the biggest in the world." The paper reported that President Taft arrived not in a heavily guarded limousine, but in a decoy limousine that arrived a few minutes later.
The weekly American Hebrew was one of the most important English-language Jewish newspapers in the United States. In its May 26, 1911 issue, the paper devoted most of its coverage of opening day to the Hebrew Department, subtitling the article "Mr. Freidus in His New Quarters." The paper lauded Freidus, stating that "Mr. Freidus' untiring interest is responsible for the increase in the collection of periodicals and rare pamphlets and curiosities of Yiddish literature ... As a whole the collection is evenly balanced, no branch of Jewish lore being neglected." Freidus was later affectionately known as "Hippopotamus" because he allegedly had three chins.
When you want to wish someone a happy birthday in Yiddish, you say, "Biz hundert un tsvantsik!" ([May you live to be] a hundred and twenty!). That seems too modest a goal on NYPL's centennial. Instead, let us say, "Biz toyznt un tsvantik"—May you live to be a thousand and twenty!