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Fulfilling a Historic Mission
“The City of New York has erected this building for the free use of all the people.” So reads the more than 100-year-old inscription above the marble fireplace in the Trustees Room.
Indeed, The New York Public Library’s central location at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street was designed to be a combined research and circulating facility, providing all people with free and open access to information — scholars and researchers, as well as children, families, and general library users.
Original architectural plans for the building display a “lending delivery room,” and in an article in Scribner’s in May 1892, John Bigelow — who would later become the first president of The New York Public Library — specifically mentioned a “lending library” when discussing plans for 42nd Street. A New York Times article from May 24, 1897, which outlined the features of the new central library, listed both a 5,000-square-foot lending room with 100 seats, and a 2,000-square-foot children’s room that could hold up to 50 young readers.
In a letter to the mayor of New York City discussing the branch system, New York Public Library Trustee G. L. Rives quotes the institution’s first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings, as stating that “such a system should include the great central reference library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.” And when an agreement and lease was signed with the city for the building in 1897, it stated that “there shall at all times be established and maintained in the said library a free circulating branch.”
So, as planned, on the day “The People’s Palace” first opened to the public — Tuesday, May 23, 1911 — a circulating library was operating in what is now the Celeste Bartos Forum on the lower level. In her book The New York Public Library: A History of Its Founding and Early Years, renowned library historian Phyllis Dain wrote, “Central Circulation opposite the ground floor entrance on 42nd Street was now the largest branch in the system, serving a varied and sophisticated clientele.” On May 24, 1911 — the first day that the building was open to the general public — an incredible 30,000 to 50,000 people traveled from all over the city to visit, and waited in long lines outside to catch a glimpse of the new library.
A beautiful children’s room was also constructed on the lower level — 419 books were checked out in the first seven days of May that the Library was open, and 75 children were registered as borrowers (all but two had never used a branch before).
At the ceremony marking the building’s opening, New York Governor John Alden Dix said, “The public library is now more than a collection of books. It is the generator of moral and intellectual energy. It used to serve scholars. Now it serves all the people.”
President William Taft said at the same ceremony, “It's not in the number of volumes or pamphlets or manuscripts that this library stands out first in the world . . . but it is in the facility of circulation and in the immense number of books that are distributed each year for use to the citizens and residents of New York and vicinity that this library easily takes the first rank. The completion of this building gives outward and substantial evidence of the perfection of the project.”
Eventually, over the decades demand for the circulating library increased, and the small lending facility outgrew its 42nd Street space. As a result, by 1972, the majority of the lending library was moved across the street to the current Mid-Manhattan Library (the children's room also moved in 1972 to the Donnell Library Center — although a small children's circulating presence returned to the 42nd Street library in 2008). Without circulating library services (and with reduced hours), visits to the central library plummeted from 3 or 4 million a year to between 1 and 2 million a year, as lending library users went across the street for books and other services.
By renovating the Schwarzman Building — and thereby providing state-of-the-art library services for all of our users — The New York Public Library will help ensure that this great treasure continues to be "for the free use of all the people.”
1897 Agreement and Lease Between the City of New York and The New York Public Library for Its 42nd Street Location:
“The said library shall be accessible at all reasonable hours and times for general use . . . one or more reading rooms in said library shall be open and accessible to the public upon every day of the week except Sundays . . . [and] there shall at all times be established and maintained in the said library a free circulating branch, and that the same shall be opened for the use of the public.”
New York Governor John Alden Dix at the Opening of the 42nd Street Building
“The public library is now more than a collection of books. It is the generator of moral and intellectual energy. It used to serve scholars. Now it serves all the people.” The New York Times, May 24, 1911
President William Taft at the Opening of the 42nd Street Building
“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 furnished a model and example for other cities, which have been struggling with the same problem, and points for them the true way . . . . It's not in the number of volumes or pamphlets or manuscripts that this library stands out first in the world . . . but it is in the facility of circulation and in the immense number of books that are distributed each year for use to the citizens and residents of New York and vicinity that this library easily takes the first rank. The completion of this building gives outward and substantial evidence of the perfection of the project.” The New York Times, May 24, 1911