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The New York Public Library (NYPL) is one of the leading public libraries of the world and is one of the United Statesmarker's most significant research libraries. It is composed of a very large circulating public library system combined with a very large non-lending research library system. It is simultaneously one of the largest public library systems in the United States and one of the largest research library systems in the world. It is a privately managed, nonprofit corporation with a public mission, operating with both private and public financing.The historian David McCullough has described the New York Public Library as one of the five most important libraries in the United States, the others being the Library of Congressmarker, the Boston Public Librarymarker, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.

The New York Public Library has branches in the boroughs of Manhattanmarker, The Bronxmarker and Staten Islandmarker. According to the American Library Association, the branch libraries comprise the twenty-sixth largest library in the United States. New York City's other two boroughs, Brooklynmarker and Queensmarker, are served by the Brooklyn Public Librarymarker and the Queens Borough Public Librarymarker respectively. These libraries predate the consolidation of New York City.

Currently, the New York Public Library consists of 89 libraries: four non-lending research libraries, four main lending libraries, a library for the blind and physically challenged, and 77 neighborhood branch libraries in the three boroughs served. All libraries in the NYPL system may be used free of charge by all visitors. As of 2008, the research collections contain 44,160,825 items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.) of which 15,985,192 are books. The Branch Libraries contain 7,565,579 items of which 4,416,812 are books. Together the collections total more than 50 million items, and the books number more than 20 million, a number surpassed only by the Library of Congressmarker and the British Librarymarker.

Due to the current 2009 economic crisis, NYPL is facing a $23.2 million funding cut when the new fiscal year begins July 1. This will result in the expected elimination of 465 jobs, and in sharply scaled back branch operating hours .


The New York Public Library main building during late stage construction in 1908.
Lion statues not yet installed at the entrance.
An early benefactor of the New York Public Library was New York governor and presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, who left the bulk of his fortune—about $2.4 million—to "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York." At the time of Tilden's death in 1886, New York already had two important libraries: the Astor Librarymarker and the Lenox Librarymarker.Another early founder-benefactor was wealthy New York merchant Robert Watts, the Son of New York Politician John Watts.

The Astor Library was created by John Jacob Astor, an immigrant who became the wealthiest man in America. When he died in 1848, he left $400,000 in his will for the establishment of a library in New York City. The Astor Library opened the following year, 1849. Although it was not a circulating library, it was a major reference library for research.

The landmarked East Villagemarker building that now houses the Public Theatermarker was built in 1854 as the Astor Library. The building was erected by William Backhouse Astor, Sr., son of the library's founder, John Jacob Astor. A German-born architect, Alexander Saeltzer, designed the building in Rundbogenstil style, then the prevailing style for public building in Germany. Astor funded expansions of the building designed by Griffith Thomas [1859] and Thomas Stent [1881]. both large expansions followed Saeltzer's original design so seamlessly that an observer cannot detect that the edifice was built in three stages. In 1920, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society purchased the building. By 1965 it was in disuse and faced demolition. The Public Theater (then the New York Shakespeare Festival) persuaded the city to purchase it for use as a theater. It was converted for theater use by Giorgio Cavaglieri.

New York's other main library was established by James Lenox and consisted mainly of his extensive collection of rare books (which included the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the New World), manuscripts, and Americana. The Lenox Library was intended primarily for bibliophiles and scholars. While it was free of charge, admission tickets (such as those that are still required to gain access to the British Librarymarker) were still needed by potential users.

So although there were already two fine libraries in New York City in 1886 and both were open to the public, neither could be termed a truly public institution in the sense that Tilden seems to have envisioned. But Tilden's vision was soon to come into fruition not only because of the generous bequest he left in his will but because of a man who was a trustee of his estate.

By 1892, both the Astor and Lenox libraries were experiencing financial difficulties. Almost as if fate would have it, John Bigelow, a New York attorney, and Tilden trustee, formulated a plan to combine the resources of the financially-strapped Astor and Lenox libraries with the Tilden bequest to form "The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations". Bigelow's plan, signed and agreed upon on May 23, 1895, was hailed as an example of private philanthropy for the public good.

The newly established library consolidated with The New York Free Circulating Library in February, 1901, and the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to construct branch libraries, with the requirement that they be maintained by the City of New York. Later in 1901 the New York Public Library signed a contract with the City of New York to operate 39 branch libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Unlike most other great libraries, such as the Library of Congressmarker, the New York Public Library was not created by government statute. From the earliest days of the New York Public Library, a tradition of partnership of city government with private philanthropy began, which continues to this day.

Main branch building

"Patience" and "Fortitude" : the "Library Lion" statues; New York Public Library with mantle of snow (record snowfall of Dec.

The organizers of the New York Public Library, wanting an imposing main branch, found a prominent, central site available at the two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets, then occupied by the no-longer-needed Croton Reservoir. Dr. John Shaw Billings, the first director of the library, created an initial design which became the basis of the new building (now known as the Humanities and Social Sciences Library) on Fifth Avenuemarker. Billings's plan called for a huge reading room on top of seven floors of bookstacks combined with a system that was designed to get books into the hands of library users as fast as possible. Following a competition among the city's most prominent architects, the relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the building. The result, a Beaux-Arts design, was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States.

Christmas tree in the main entrance to the NYPL at the Astor Hall.

The cornerstone was laid in May 1902, but work progressed slowly on the project, which eventually cost $9 million. In 1910, 75 miles of shelves were installed, and it took a year to move and install the books that were in the Astor and Lenox libraries.

On May 23, 1911, the main branch of the New York Public Library was officially opened in a ceremony presided over by President William Howard Taft. The following day, the public was invited. Tens of thousands thronged to the Library's "jewel in the crown." The opening day collection consisted of more than 1,000,000 volumes. The New York Public Library instantly became one of the nation's largest libraries and a vital part of the intellectual life of America. Library records for that day show that one of the very first items called for was N. I. Grot's ("Ethical Ideas of Our Time") a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy. The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book just six minutes later.

Cross-view of classical details in the entrance portico
Entrance to the Public Catalog Room
The Map Division

Two famous stone lions guarding the entrance were sculpted by Edward Clark Potter. They were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, in honor of the library's founders. These names were transformed into Lady Astor and Lord Lenox (although both lions are male). In the 1930s they were nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He chose these names because he felt that the citizens of New York would need to possess these qualities to see themselves through the Great Depression. Patience is on the south side (the left as one faces the main entrance) and Fortitude on the north.

The main reading room of the Research Library (Room 315) is a majestic 78 feet (23.8 m) wide by 297 feet (90.5 m) long, with 52 feet (15.8 m) high ceilings—lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony; lit by massive windows and grand chandeliers; furnished with sturdy wood tables, comfortable chairs, and brass lamps. Today it is also equipped with computers with access to library collections and the Internet and docking facilities for laptops. Readers study books brought to them from the library's closed stacks. In late December 2008, the library had to close off access to these stacks and all of the books housed there (Note: Based on a phone call made to the NYPL questions line on August 8, 2009, it appears that the public has regained access to the Closed Stacks—this section should be reviewed.); the problem appears temporary, but the NYPL has not offered an explanation—beyond a vague mention of lead and facade work—or a date after which books can again be retrieved from the stacks for patrons. There are special rooms for notable authors and scholars, many of whom have done important research and writing at the Library. But the Library has always been about more than scholars, during the Great Depression, many ordinary people, out of work, used the Library to improve their lot in life (as they still do).

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Over the decades, the library system added branch libraries, and the research collection expanded until, by the 1970s, it was clear the collection eventually would outgrow the existing structure. In the 1980s the central research library added more than 125,000 square feet (12,000 m²) of space and literally miles of bookshelf space to its already vast storage capacity to make room for future acquisitions. This expansion required a major construction project in which Bryant Parkmarker, directly west of the library, was closed to the public and excavated. The new library facilities were built below ground level and the park was restored above it.

A panoramic view of the Rose Main Reading Room, facing south.

On July 17, 2007, the building was briefly evacuated and the surrounding area was cordoned off by New York police because of a suspicious package found across the street. It turned out to be a bag of old clothes.

In the three decades before 2007, the building's interior was gradually renovated.

On December 20, 2007, the library announced it will undertake a three-year, $50 million renovation of the building exterior, which has suffered damage from weathering and pollution. The restoration design has been overseen by WJE Engineers and Architects, whose previous projects include the Metropolitan Museum of Artmarker’s limestone facades and the American Museum of Natural Historymarker, made of granite. These renovations will be underwritten by a $100-million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose name will be inscribed at the bottom of the columns which frame the building's entrances. Library officials expect that his name will be added some time in 2009 and that the larger restoration of the building’s facade will be completed in 2010.

Other research branches

Even though the central research library on 42nd Street had greatly expanded its capacity, in the 1990s the decision was made to remove that portion of the research collection devoted to science, technology, and business to a new location. The new location was the abandoned B. Altman department store on 34th Street. In 1995, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the library, the $100 million Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of Manhattan, finally opened to the public. Upon the creation of the SIBL, the central research library on 42nd Street was renamed the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

Today there are four research libraries that comprise the NYPL's outstanding research library system which hold approximately 44,000,000 items. Total item holdings, including the collections of the Branch Libraries, are 50.6 million. The Humanities and Social Sciences Library on 42nd Street is still the heart of the NYPL's research library system but the Science, Industry and Business Library, with approximately 2 million volumes and 60,000 periodicals, is quickly gaining greater prominence in the NYPL's research library system because of its up-to-date electronic resources available to the general public. The SIBL, the nation's largest public library devoted solely to science and business, provides users with broad access to science, technology, and business information via 150 networked computer work stations. The NYPL's two other research libraries are the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture, located at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlemmarker and the New York Public Library for the Performing Artsmarker, located at Lincoln Centermarker. In addition to their reference collections, the Library for the Performing Arts and the SIBL also have circulating components that are administered by the NYPL's Branch Libraries system.


The contraction of services and collections has been a continuing source of controversy since 2004 when David Ferriero was named the Andrew W. Mellon Director and Chief Executive of the Research Libraries. NYPL had engaged consultants Booz Allen Hamilton to survey the institution, and Ferriero endorsed the survey's report as a big step "in the process of reinventing the library." When this same consulting firm presented similar recommendations to the Library of Congress, they were rejected by head Librarian of Congress James Billington. The consolidation program has resulted in the elimination of subjects such as the Asian and Middle East Division (formerly named Oriental Division) as well as the Slavic and Baltic Division.

A number of innovations in recent years have not been without detractors.

NYPL announced participation in the Google Books Library Project, which involves a series of agreements between Google and major international libraries through which a collection of its public domain books will be scanned in their entirety and made available for free to the public online. The negotiations between the two partners called for each to project guesses about ways that libraries are likely to expand in the future. According to the terms of the agreement, the data cannot be crawled or harvested by any other search engine; no downloading or redistribution is allowed. The partners and a wider community of research libraries can share the content.

Branch Libraries

The New York Public Library system maintains its commitment to being a public lending library through its branch libraries in The Bronxmarker, Manhattanmarker and Staten Islandmarker, including the Mid-Manhattan Library, The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, the circulating collections of the Science, Industry and Business Library, and the circulating collections of the Library for the Performing Arts. These circulating libraries offer a wide range of collections, programs, and services, including the renowned Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library and the Media Center at Donnell.

Of its 82 branch libraries, 35 are in Manhattan, 34 are in the Bronx, and 12 are in Staten Island.


The sale of the separately endowed former Donnell Library in mid-town has not been without its critics. The elimination of Donnell also meant the dissolution of children's, young adult and foreign language collections. The Donnell Media Center was also dismantled, with parts of its collections redistributed.

These changes are vaunted as the road to new collaborations and new synergy, however, restructuring has meant that several veteran librarians with institutional memory have left and age-level specialists in the boroughs have been cut back.

ASK NYPL (Live Help 24/7)

Since 1968 Telephone Reference has been an integral part of The New York Public Library’s reference services, although it existed long before in a limited way. Now known as ASK NYPL[32362], the service provides answers by phone and online via chat and e-mail. The service fulfilled nearly 70,000 requests for information in 2007. Inquiries range from the serious and life-changing (a New Orleans resident who lost his birth certificate in Katrina needing to know how to obtain a copy; turns out he was born in Brooklyn), to the fun or even off-the-wall (a short-story writer researching the history of Gorgonzola cheese). In 1992 a selection of unusual and entertaining questions and answers from ASK NYPL was the source for Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service’s Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions, a popular volume published by Fireside Books. National and international questioners have included scores of newspaper reporters, authors, celebrities, professors, secretaries, CEOs, and everyone in between.
New York Public Library Elevation

In 2008 The New York Public Library’s ASK NYPL reference service introduced two enhancements that improve and expand the service.

The Library recently launched 917-ASK-NYPL, a new easier to remember telephone number for Library information and for asking reference questions. Every day, except Sundays and holidays, between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, anyone, of any age, from anywhere in the world can telephone 917-275-6975 and ask a question. The library staff will not answer crossword or contest questions, do children's homework, or answer philosophical speculations..

In addition, the ASK NYPL service is now available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Library users can ask reference questions in Spanish and English and seek help at anytime through online chat via the Library’s website at Through participation in an international cooperative, the Library receives support answering questions outside regular hours.


The New York Public Library website provides access to the library's catalogs, online collections and subscription databases, and has information about the library's free events, exhibitions, computer classes and English as a Second Language classes. The two online catalogs, LEO (which searches the circulating collections) and CATNYP (which searches the research collections) allow users to search the library's holdings of books, journals and other materials. The LEO system allows cardholders to request books from any branch and have them delivered to any branch.

The NYPL gives cardholders free access from home to thousands of current and historical magazines, newspapers, journals and reference books in subscription databases, including EBSCOhost, which contains full text of major magazines; full text of the New York Times (1995-present), Gale's Ready Reference Shelf which includes the Encyclopedia of Associations and periodical indexes, Books in Print; and Ulrich's Periodicals Directory.

The NYPL Digital Gallery is a database of over 700,000 images digitized from the library's collections. The Digital Gallery was named one of Time Magazine's 50 Coolest Websites of 2005 and Best Research Site of 2006 by an international panel of museum professionals.

Other databases available only from within the library include Nature, IEEE and Wiley science journals, Wall Street Journal archives, and Factiva.


A new NYPL new strategy adopted in 2006 anticipated merging branch and research libraries into “One NYPL.” The organizational change anticipated a unified online catalog for all the collections, as well as one card for both branch and research libraries.

Despite public relations' assurances, the 2009 website and online-catalog transition did not proceed smoothly, with patrons and staff equally at a loss for how to work effectively with the new system. Reassuring press releases followed the initial implementation, and notices were posted in branch and research libraries.

NYPL Law Enforcement

The NYPL maintains a force of NYC special patrolman who provide security and protection to various libraries and NYPL special investigators who oversee security operations at the library facilities. These officials have on-duty arrest authority granted by NYS penal law; however, some library branches use contracted security guards for security.

The NYPL in popular culture




  • Lynne Sharon Schwartz's The Writing on the Wall (2005), features a language researcher at NYPL who grapples with her past following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
  • Cynthia Ozick's 2004 novel Heir to the Glimmering World, set just prior to World War II, involves a refugee-scholar from Hitler's Germany researching the Karaite Jews at NYPL.
  • In the 1996 novel Contest by Matthew Reilly the NYPL is the setting for an intergalactic gladiatorial fight that results in the building's total destruction.
  • In 1985, novelist Jerome Badanes based his novel The Final Opus of Leon Solomon on the real-life tragedy of an impoverished scholar who stole books from the Jewish Division, only to be caught and commit suicide.
  • In the 1984 murder mystery by Jane Smiley, Duplicate Keys, an NYPL librarian stumbles on two dead bodies, circa 1930.
  • The NYPL is depicted on the cover of Raven Rise by D.J MacHale. The library plays an role in the book, as it is seen in the present and future, to which it is shown as the majority of it being destroyed.
  • In "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenidies, the main characters visits the NYPL to look up her condition in the dictionary.
  • Allen Kurzweil's The Grand Complication is the story of an NYPL librarian whose research skills are put to work finding a missing museum object.
  • Donna Hill, who was herself an NYPL librarian in the 1950s, set her 1965 novel Catch a Brass Canary at an NYPL branch library.
  • Lawrence Blochman's 1942 mystery Death Walks in Marble Halls features a murder committed using a brass spindle from a catalog drawer.
  • A charming, lightly fictionalized portrait of the Jewish Division's first chief, Abraham Solomon Freidus, is found in a chapter of Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).


Both branches and the central building have been immortalized in numerous poems, including:
  • Richard Eberhart’s “Reading Room, The New York Public Library” (in his Collected Poems, 1930-1986 [1988])
  • Arthur Guiterman’s “The Book Line; Rivington Street Branch, New York Public Library” (in his Ballads of Old New York [1920])
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Library Scene, Manhattan” (in his How to Paint Sunlight [2001])
  • James Haug’s “Heat: a Composite” (in his The Stolen Car [1989])
  • Muriel Rukeyser’s “Nuns in the Wind” (in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser [2005])
  • Paul Blackburn’s “Graffiti” (in The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn [1985])
  • E.B. White's "Reading Room" (Poems and Sketches of E.B. White [1981])
  • James Turcotte’s poem series “The New York Public Library,” his moving meditation on his advancing AIDS, which appeared in the Minnesota Review (1993)
  • Ted Mathys’ "Inventory Entering the New York Public Library" (Gulf Coast [2005])
  • Jennifer Nostrand’s "The New York Public Library" (Manhattan Poetry Review [1989])
  • Susan Thomas’ "New York Public Library" (the anthology American Diaspora [2001])
  • Aaron Zeitlin's poem about going to the library, included in his 2-volume Ale lider un poemes [Complete Lyrics and Poems] (1967 and 1970)


Excerpts from several of the many memoirs and essays mentioning The New York Public Library are included in the anthology Reading Rooms (1991), including reminiscences by Alfred Kazin, Henry Miller, and Kate Simon.

Other New York City library systems

The New York Public Library, serving Manhattanmarker, the Bronxmarker, and Staten Islandmarker, is one of three separate and independent public library systems in New York City. The other two library systems are the Brooklyn Public Librarymarker and the Queens Borough Public Librarymarker.

According to the latest Mayor’s Management Report, New York City’s three public library systems had a total library circulation of 35 million broken down as follows: the NYPL and BPL (with 143 branches combined) had a circulation of 15 million, and the QBPL system had a circulation of 20 million through its 62 branch libraries. Altogether the three library systems also hosted 37 million visitors in 2006.

Private libraries in New York City, some of which can be used by the public, are listed in Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Gale)

See also


  1. [New York Public 2008 Annual Report (PDF)]
  2. [1] Dailey News, Economy sets stage for service cuts, layoffs at New York's city library systems, Dorian Block and Frank Lombardi, March 18th 2009
  3. [2]Web page titled "History" at the New York Public Library Web site, accessed December 20, 2007
  4. Barbaralee Dimonstein, The Landmarks of New York, Harry Abrams, 1998, p. 107.
  5. Pogrebin, Robin, "A Centennial Face-Lift For a Beaux-Arts Gem: Restoration of Library Facade Begins With Visions of a Nightly Spectacle", article, The New York Times, page B1, December 20, 2007
  6. [3]Web page (news release?) titled "The New York Public Library Will Restore its Fifth Avenue Building's Historic Facade / Project to be Completed in Time for Building's 2011 Centennial / (New York City, December 20, 2007)" at the New York Public Library Web site, accessed December 20, 2007
  7. Pogrebin, Robin (December 20, 2007). "A Centennial Face-Lift for a Beaux-Arts Gem". "". The New York Times. Retrieved 3-30-2009.
  8. Santora, Marc. "After Big Gift, a New Name for the Library," New York Public Library. April 23, 2008.
  9. Norman Oder, "One NYPL," Many Questions, Library Journal, November 1, 2007.
  10. Oder, Norman. "NYPL Reorganization Coming," Library Journal (October 1, 2007). Vol. 132, Issue 16, p. 12.
  11. Congressional Oversight Committee Reviews Library of Congress.
  12. New York Public Library + Google
  13. Rothstein, Edward. "If Books Are on Google, Who Gains and Who Loses?" New York Times. November 14, 2005.
  14. Library and Information Technology Association, "Contracting for Content in a Digital World"
  15. Chan, Sewell. "Sale of Former Donnell Library Is Back on Track," New York Times. July 9, 2009.
  16. LeClerc, Paul. "Answers About the New York Public Library, Part 3," New York Times. December 12, 2008.
  17. Oder, Norman. "NYPL: Synergy on the Way?" Library Journal (February 1, 2005), Vol. 130, Issue 2
  18. "NYPL head = Natl. archivist; New Catalog, Restructuring," Library Journal (August 1, 2009, Vol. 134, Issue 13.
  19. "Library Phone Answerers Survive the Internet." The New York Times 19 June 2006.[4]
  20. Slotnik, Daniel E. "Library System Resolves Catalog Problems," New York Times. July 20, 2009.

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