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For Find Out Friday Week 15- Library Systems in New York City

The library is one of the greatest cultural and educational institutions that exist. When I was in elementary school I remember the excitement I felt whenever we went to the library. All of the books were surrounded by the little tables and chairs making it seem like an enchanted realm. Trying to decide which books to take home was almost as magical as when the Scholastic packages ( arrived in school.

My beloved high school teacher ( was the one that taught me to judge any university I visited by their library. It would be the foundation of my education. When I saw the library at Fordham University I was bowed over. It was how I knew that was where I would attend graduate school.

The library system in New York City is more complicated than I knew. There is a total of ninety-two libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. But that leaves Queens and Brooklyn out of this borough configuration. I had to find out why. So I sat down and dug in.

The New York Public Library System began in 1895 and is the nation’s largest. This is not surprising given that New York City is also the largest city in this country.

Among those who were part of creating this timeless center of learning was Samuel J. Tilden, a name I recognize as a high school in my part of Brooklyn that was named for him. In his will he left over two million dollars to "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York."

During Tilden’s time there were already two libraries in existence, the Astor and Lennox libraries. As you can probably guess from the titles they were started by members of those families. The Astor library was a center for research and nothing could be taken or “borrowed” as we would say today.

The Lennox library was founded with the rare book collection of this family’s patriarch. It was free to visit but tickets had to be issued. At that time it was thought to be a place where mostly scholars went to visit and read.

As time went on it was clear that these two establishments weren’t providing enough for the public need nor making any money. With Tilden’s donation and the combination of the Astor and Lennox libraries, The New York Public Library was born.

The site of the public library was selected because it was a popular strolling area and the foot traffic was meant to encourage those passing by to come in. Since its creation there have been two lions that “guard” over the library for protection. They have become mascots so to speak. Originally called Astor and Lennox for those early versions of libraries they finally became called Patience and Fortitude.  Former Mayor LaGuardia named them so during the 1930s. Beloved by all they were decorated for every season until the wear and tear became too much. They remind me of the lions at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago who I am delighted to say are still able to show some Christmas spirit. My favorite factoid is that our N.Y.C. lions “served as the hiding place for the cowardly lion in the motion picture The Wiz.”

By 1901 there was a need to create a department solely responsible for the circulation of books. That must have been something to witness from the beginning.

The official dedication took place on May 23, 1911 and was attended by President William Howard Taft along with City leaders.

It was another familiar name, Andrew Carnegie, who donated over five million dollars to create branches of this library that would extend into the boroughs (excluding Brooklyn and Queens), not just New York City itself. New York City would fund its operations.

  • Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island- Currently serve over seventeen million people a year with resources that are renowned worldwide.
  • Brooklyn- As an independent system, separate from the New York City and Queens libraries, Brooklyn Public Library serves the borough's 2.5 million residents, offering thousands of public programs, millions of books and use of more than proved over a thousand free Internet-accessible computers.
  • Queens- This borough serves 2.3 million people from sixty-two locations plus seven Adult Learning Centers and two Family Literacy Centers. It circulates among the highest numbers of books and other library materials in the country. That is pretty incredible.

What separates the boroughs and their library systems is that before the consolidation of all five into one New York City, Brooklyn and Queens had already established their library systems which remain in use since then. Therefore Carnegie’s funds went to merging Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island libraries as a central source of information.

I have been wanting to visit the library’s main location in the heart of midtown Manhattan as it is currently still on my to do list ( My calendar is booked solid for December so I am already picking a day for this visit in January.

I am not alone in my desire to tour this institution. Thrillist has declared this as one of the landmarks in New York to see before you die. Timeout NYC lists this library as one of the most beautiful in the world, giving it a score of twenty-four out of the thirty-three things New Yorkers should be thankful for.

Since I began writing this post I am that much more eager to get this visit under my belt. Now that I am a more informed visitor this should really be a special treat.

Among the collection I am aching to see most is that of Alexander Hamilton. As founder of our Treasury the library has many of his papers and artifacts related on file. This founding father has found his legacy revamped as the hit Broadway play but I appreciate the man in his original glory. In fact I have paid my respects to him at his gravesite at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.

The collection at the library has too numerous topics for me to list each one individually. Suffice it to say they have archival information on anything you can think of from the arts to the sciences to newsworthy historical events. Currently at the front of my list is a draft of President George Washington’s Farewell to Arms speech and the original stuffed animals that served as the muse for A.A. Mine, the creator of Winnie the Pooh.

Given all the time in the world I would sit down and start looking at newspapers from the dawn of time. Not to brag but I have a pretty good collection at home of historical events that have taken place during the course of my life and the newspapers that marked those occasions. In fact when a new baby is born in my circle I always make sure the parents get a copy of the New York Times from the day their child was born to save. Naturally I will do the same for mine probably going one step further and having them laminated, framed, and hanging in my hallway.

In recent news the New York City Budget approved thirty-eight million dollars in Capital Funding for the N.Y.C. libraries. This will also include an additional forty-three million in baseline funding. This funding will be used to hire staff where needed as well as extend library hours. The six-day work week will remain with additional services and materials for the public.

Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer said: “Libraries are the backbones of our communities, they are spaces where adults can learn job skills, seniors can practice using the computer, children can develop literacy, and communities can come together.”

I cannot think of a better cause worth supporting.

As a show of support for libraries everywhere I plan to invest in my own Dewey Decimal System in my personal Card Catalog. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper has one in his apartment thus I shall have one in mine.

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