Ottendorfer Over the Years
I feel privileged to be the Library Manager at the oldest public library in New York City. Many who come through our doors are intrigued by the architectural details of the neo-Italian Renaissance style on the facade and the words etched above the entrance, "Freie Bibliothek LeseHalle," to see what the library holds. When the library first opened, its collections were half in German and half in English, and the purpose was to help German immigrants in the area assimilate and learn English. Much has changed in the East Village since the library first opened its doors. We no longer have German books, but one can find Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Polish and French, in addition to English.
A patron recently shared with me a photo of the library from back in the day, when a movie theater was located next door. By looking up the short film titles that one can read in the movie posters (Their Dark Secret and The Purple Mask) in IMDb, we revealed the date of the photo as circa 1916. In this photo, the library is tucked off to the side and you can see a group entering as another one leaves.
If you search NYPL's Digital Collections, you can find many more images. The one below would seem to be from perhaps the 1890s when the building was still new. You can see the embedded tracks in the street. According to the New York Transit Museum, cable cars driven by steam power replaced horsecars in the 1880s. In 1909, these in turn were replaced by the electrically-powered trolleys.
The Ottendorfer Library opened its doors in 1885, a time when it was customary to have closed stacks in libraries. In the picture below on the left, the stacks do appear to be caged, in so that only a librarian could retrieve books for patrons. John Cotton Dana was the first librarian to champion open stacks for the public to access. Books, he felt, should be readily available to all and not for a privileged few. Dana was the first City Librarian for the Denver Public Library in the 1890s. On the right, you can see the card catalog and information desk. Can you believe that many children growing up today will not know what a card catalog is but only its online equivalent?
Dana was also the first librarian to develop a collection devoted entirely to children's literature. One can assume that is was not for many years later that the Ottendorfer Library would have its own children's collection. Originally, it was a only a place for adults to study. The picture below shows the back part of the second floor where a group has gathered to listen to a broadcast of the opera. Today we have six story times for children each week in that room, but we still have performances and book discussion groups for adults as well. While much has changed here at the Ottendorfer library, much has stayed the same.