Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911

Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911

Tom Glynn
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911
    Book Description:

    This lively, nuanced history of New York City's early public libraries traces their evolution within the political, social, and cultural worlds that supported them. On May 11, 1911, the New York Public Library opened its "marble palace for book lovers" on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This was the city's first public library in the modern sense, a tax-supported, circulating collection free to every citizen. Since before the Revolution, however, New York's reading publics had access to a range of "public libraries" as the term was understood by contemporaries. In its most basic sense a public library in the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries simply meant a shared collection of books that was available to the general public and promoted the public good. From the founding in 1754 of the New York Society Library up to 1911, public libraries took a variety of forms. Some of them were free, charitable institutions, while others required a membership or an annual subscription. Some, such as the Biblical Library of the American Bible Society, were highly specialized; others, like the Astor Library, developed extensive, inclusive collections. What all the public libraries of this period had in common, at least ostensibly, was the conviction that good books helped ensure a productive, virtuous, orderly republic-that good reading promoted the public good. Tom Glynn's vivid, deeply researched history of New York City's public libraries over the course of more than a century and a half illuminates how the public and private functions of reading changed over time and how shared collections of books could serve both public and private ends. Reading Publics examines how books and reading helped construct social identities and how print functioned within and across groups, including but not limited to socioeconomic classes. The author offers an accessible while scholarly exploration of how republican and liberal values, shifting understandings of "public" and "private," and the debate over fiction influenced the development and character of New York City's public libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reading Publics is an important contribution to the social and cultural history of New York City that firmly places the city's early public libraries within the history of reading and print culture in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6267-0
    Subjects: Library Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Readers, Libraries, and New York City Before 1911
    (pp. 1-16)

    On May 23, 1911, with nearly six hundred dignitaries crowded into the ornate entrance hall, and as less privileged citizens thronged the steps and streets outside, the New York Public Library officially opened its grand new Central Building on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street.¹ The event, in the words of the guest of honor, President William Howard Taft, inaugurated “a work of National importance.”² Accounts in the national press echoed his sentiments. TheIndependent, an influential journal of politics and opinion, described the opulent structure as “a symbol of the modern idea of what an American library should be,” and...

  5. 1 The New York Society Library: Books, Authority, and Publics in Colonial and Early Republican New York
    (pp. 17-42)

    In 1754, a group of earnest young men founded the New York Society Library to advance the cause of learning and refinement in a small seaport town on the fringe of the British Empire. It was the first successful public library in the colony and one of the first in North America. As a public institution, its history from the colonial era through the early republican period mirrors changes in the ways that the public, and public and private activity, were conceived during these years. As a public collection, its development and use traces shifts in attitudes toward the kinds...

  6. 2 Books for a Reformed Republic: The Apprentices’ Library in Antebellum New York
    (pp. 43-65)

    In 1785, a group of upstanding master craftsmen founded the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. The Society began as a fraternal organization whose primary purpose was to aid members who had fallen on hard times. In 1820, it started a library for the use of the city’s apprentices. By 1865, the library had become its most important function.

    The early development of the Apprentices’ Library of New York City occurred during a period of unprecedented political, economic, and social change. The franchise was rapidly expanded until all adult white males, including the foreign-born, had the vote. Methods of craft...

  7. 3 The Past in Print: History and the Market at the New-York Historical Society Library
    (pp. 66-100)

    On February 12, 1805, an address “To the Public” appeared in theNew-York Heraldand other local newspapers announcing the formation of “an association for the purpose of discovering, procuring, and preserving whatever may relate to the natural, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical history of our country and particularly of the State of New-York.” The founders intended to build a library and thus solicited from the “liberal, patriotic, and learned” citizens of the city donations of books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts, and other material relating to “History of any State, City, Town, or District.”¹ In the decades before the Civil War, the...

  8. 4 The Biblical Library of the American Bible Society: Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Corporation
    (pp. 101-117)

    In November 1849, President Luther Bradish delivered the annual discourse before the New-York Historical Society. He offered the members and guests a grand narrative of the history of the last century, of “the great progress which the world has made . . . in the physical, intellectual and moral condition of the race.” Central of course to his narrative was “the assertion of a new and vital principle of liberty and of free government,” which was the “working out of the Great Plans laid by infinite wisdom in the Councils of Eternity.” Bradish was also active in and later served...

  9. 5 Commerce and Culture: Recreation and Self-Improvement in New York’s Subscription Libraries
    (pp. 118-146)

    In 1849, the City of New York taxed the New York Society Library. The tax assessor determined that since a considerable portion of its building on Broadway and Leonard Streets was leased to various businesses or rented out for exhibits, concerts, and other performances, the Library was not exempt from taxation as a public institution. The trustees appealed the assessment and lost. In December 1853, Judge Robert Emmett of the Superior Court held that the property was “used and occupied for the purpose of gain and traffic” and therefore taxable real estate.¹ This long and complex legal dispute raises fundamental...

  10. 6 “Men of Leisure and Men of Letters”: New York’s Public Research Libraries
    (pp. 147-169)

    On May 7, 1849, the popular English actor Charles Macready took the stage at the luxurious new Astor Place Opera House to play the title role inMacbeth. Hundreds of working-class devotees of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, packed the galleries and promptly began to boo and hiss and pelt the stage with apples, potatoes, copper coins, and rotten eggs. By the third act, the mood had become increasingly violent. After a chair was hurled from the upper tier into the orchestra pit below, Macready quit the stage and vowed to sail home to England.

    Only a dramatic public appeal...

  11. 7 Scholars and Mechanics: Libraries and Higher Learning in Nineteenth-Century New York
    (pp. 170-198)

    On January 20, 1847, Townsend Harris, the president of the Board of Education, presented the report of a special committee that recommended a radical departure in public education for the city and state of New York. It urged the board to petition the legislature for a new law that would reserve a portion of the state’s Literature Fund to establish and annually fund a “free College or Academy for the instruction of students who have been pupils in the Public Schools.”¹ The annually elected Board of Education was established just five years earlier, shortly before the City took over the...

  12. 8 New York’s Free Circulating Libraries: The Mission of the Public Library in the Gilded Age
    (pp. 199-221)

    What Mordecai Noah said at the reopening of the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in 1850 remained true for more than a quarter of a century.¹ The Apprentices’ Library was still the only collection in the city of New York available to the “poor, little ragged apprentice boy . . . disposed to drink deep at the Pierian Spring.” While other large cities such as Boston and Chicago established municipal systems that were free to every resident, leaders in the profession both locally and nationally increasingly regarded New York as a backwater of public library development....

  13. 9 The Founding of the New York Public Library: Public and Private in the Progressive Era
    (pp. 222-252)

    InTriumphant Democracy, or, Fifty Years’ March of the Republic(1886), Andrew Carnegie compared material conditions in the United States near the close of the nineteenth century with conditions half a century earlier. He marveled that “we might almost conclude that we were upon another planet and subject to different primary conditions.” Dedicated to “the beloved Republic under whose equal laws I am made the peer of any man,” his best seller explained at great length and with an abundance of statistics why America “leads the civilized world.” For Carnegie, republicanism was the critical constant in American history. The essential...

  14. Afterword: Public Libraries and New York’s Elusive Reading Publics
    (pp. 253-264)

    In her 2007 article “Ideologies and Practices of Reading,” Barbara Sicherman observes that while there is an extensive literature on production and distribution, “the consumption of books is almost wholly unchartered territory.”¹ This is due in part to a paucity of evidence. Even with the increasing availability of online, searchable, full-text sources, it is difficult to find firsthand accounts not just of what readers read, but also of how and why they read, of their intimate encounters with print. This is particularly true for research on public libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are few surviving sources that...

  15. Appendix A: Timeline
    (pp. 265-270)
  16. Appendix B: New York Libraries, circa 1900
    (pp. 271-272)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 273-402)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 403-426)
  19. Index
    (pp. 427-448)