The New York Public Library, which opened in 1911, had two predecessors—the Lenox on upper Fifth Avenue where the Frick Collection now stands and the Astor housed in the landmark building occupied by the Public Theater. The two libraries differed from one another and from what was to follow. The Astor was essentially a non-lending library and reading room for the citizens of New York, while the Lenox was a treasure house of rare books and works of art.
Avowedly a gift to the citizens of New York, the Lenox was criticized since it limited entrée to its historic collections, which included prized copies of the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare portfolios, to a small number of scholars. At the same time these criticisms signaled the need for a fully functioning, circulating library system for the City of New York.
Fifteen years after Lenox’s death, a new institution emerged when representatives of the Lenox and Astor Libraries, agreed to combine their collections. With this merger and funds from the Tilden Trust, today’s New York Public Library became a reality. This initial organization was later expanded through incorporation with the New York Free Circulating Library and gifts from Andrew Carnegie to form a wide system of circulating libraries, with its research collection as the jewel in the crown.
One hundred years later the Library is again in the public eye with news accounts critical of its decision to consolidate some of its branches and shift parts of its collection to off-site storage. What better moment then to look back and examine the library’s origins and to reflect on its essential and on-going role in the City’s modern history?
A writer in residence in the Library’s Wertheim Study, Sally Webster is Professor Emerita of American Art at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. An authority on public art, her most recent book is Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt. Her book-length study, Benjamin Franklin, New York City and America’s First Public Monuments, is currently under review.
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