Life at the library: New York Public Library’s live-in superintendents
In the 1930 census, John H. Fedeler was living at 476 Fifth Avenue in midtown. Believe it or not midtown was once lined with brownstones. However, Fedeler's home address was not for a residential building, but for a library. Mr. Fedeler lived and worked in New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from 1910 to 1940 as the library's live-in superintendent and engineer.
How did John Fedeler end up as the superintendent at the main building of the New York Public Library? It certainly wasn’t a direct path. His personal history is full of unexpected turns. You can read about this journey from the Bowery to the New York Public Library in Fedeler’s own words; he was interviewed by the New York Times after inventing an air purger which removed dust particles from the air. His son was also featured in the Times describing what life was like growing up in a library.
Researching Mr. Fedeler also brought to my attention the fact that many New York Public Library buildings had live-in supers. The New York Times featured an article last month about one woman’s experience of growing up in a library building and her father’s work there. This discovery led me to the natural question: do we have a list of these men and their families living in library buildings across Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island? After a little poking around, I found that there was no comprehensive list of live-in supers at the New York Public Library. I decided that was enough motivation to at least attempt one by searching the census.
To compile the list, I decided to focus on Carnegie libraries which had living quarters for superintendents and their families. There are 39 Carnegie libraries in the New York Public Library system, many of which are still in use. (You can learn more about the Carnegie libraries of New York City in The architecture of literacy: the Carnegie libraries in New York City) Normally, I search the census by an individual’s name, using databases like Ancestry, Footnote and Heritage Quest. Without a list of names I would need to search the census by address.
The census is enumerated in large tracts called Assembly Districts or ADs which are further divided into smaller tracts called enumeration districts or EDs. These districts changed over time; as such, when searching the census by address you would need to know what enumeration district an address fell within at the time of the census. At the Milstein Division we have several maps which define ADs and EDs. There is also the Steve Morse Website for obtaining EDs for the 1900-1940 censuses. Knowing the ED would direct you to the section of the census which should have the address in question. The section may be fifty pages long and in very cramped handwriting so the process can be tedious. Here is the guide we use at the Milstein Division for searching the census by address.
I found several library superintendents this way, one of whom was Julius Eichenauer, who was superintendent of the Tremont Branch for thirty-six years and John Murphy of the Muhlenberg Branch who took this photograph of the Muhlenberg boys literary club.