Monday, May 23, 2016

LIBRARIES | May 23–NY Public Library Opens

The Main Reading Room of the NYPL, the world's most
accessible research library.
This day in 1911, presided over by President William Howard Taft, the New York Public Library was dedicated.

It was the largest marble structure ever constructed in the United States, extending from 40th Street to 42nd Street.

It took 14 years to complete at a cost of $9 million, with two lions (Patience and Fortitude) posted out front on Fifth Avenue to protect the books and collect late fees. The library then had a tad more than one million books.

New York City in the late 1890s passed Paris in population and was gaining on London, which was then then largest city in the world by population. Its library lagged behind the other cities. This was rectified by a merger among three library initiatives:
  • The Astor family library.
  • The Lenox family library.
  • The Tilden family, after the death in 1886 of N.Y. Governor Samuel J. Tilden. He left New York City $2.4 million to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” 
Out of these three legacies the New York Public Library was born. Its branch libraries were strengthened by a $5.2 million gift from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Today, the New York Public Library is visited and used annually by well over 10 million people (one estimate is as high as 18 million), and there are currently more than two million cardholders, more than for any other U.S. library system. (I am proud to have a card for the NYPL and for Friends of the NYPL.)


For ease of use, the NYPL must rank near the top of all the research libraries in the world. Of the five greatest libraries, two are in the United States (NYPL and Library of Congress), and two are in Britain (the British Library and Oxford's Bodleian). The fifth, the Bibliothèque Nationale, lags far behind the other four in accessibility. (I have library cards for all five of these libraries.)

After NYPL's annual visitors of 10-18 million (depending on how you count) there is a free fall to the 1.7 million-per-year figure at the second-placed British Library and Library of Congress.

I question Wikipedia's conclusion that the NYPL's 53 million books ranks it the third largest cataloged collection in the world after the Library of Congress (more than 160 million items) and the British Library (more than 150 million items). If Archives Canada in Ottawa has 54 million volumes or items, then Ottawa ranks third and NYPL only fourth in the world in collection size–still not shabby.  Russia (Moscow Library) is at 44 million items and France (Bibliothèque National) has 40 million items.

A spokesperson at the Library of Congress told me that there is some disagreement about how to count items. The British Library allegedly counts some individual stamps as items equivalent to a book, whereas the Library of Congress combined stamps into albums.

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