The New York Public Library (NYPL) is one of the leading public libraries of the world and is one of America's most significant research libraries. It is unusual in that 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 America, the others being the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.
The New York Public Library has branches in the boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island. New York City's other two boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, are served by the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library 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 handicapped, 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 2007, the research collections contain 43,975,362 items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.) of which 15,985,192 are books. The Branch Libraries contain 7,299,286 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 by only the Library of Congress and the British Library.
If the three public library systems of New York City were considered as a single entity this unified library would have 208 branches and a collection of more than 30 million book volumes, making it the largest public library in the world.
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 Library, and the Lenox Library. 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.
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, tickets of admission (such as those that are still required to gain access to the British Library) 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 Congress, 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. A tradition which continues to this day.
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 Avenue. 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.
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 Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni ("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.
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) — 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. 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 Park, 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.
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. 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.
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 43,000,000 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 Harlem and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, located at Lincoln Center. 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 New York Public Library system maintains its commitment to being a public lending library through its branch libraries in The Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, including the Mid-Manhattan Library, The Donnell Library Center, 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 11 are in Staten Island.
Under their rules, each inquiry must be answered in under five minutes, meaning the caller gets an answer or somewhere to go for an answer — like a specialty library, trade group or Web site. Researchers cannot call questioners back. Although the majority of calls are in English, the staff can get by in Chinese, Spanish, German and some Yiddish. Specialty libraries, like the Slavic and Baltic division, can lend a hand with, for example, Albanian.
Internet inquiries make up only a third of the questions, but they can take up to 35 minutes each and 85% of total staff time. Internet inquiries come by e-mail (13,398 in 2005) and a one-on-one chat that resembles instant messaging (7,220 in 2005). While telephone calls have declined recently to fewer than 150 a day from more than 1,000, they still made up two-thirds, or 41,715, of all inquiries in 2005; the rest were by computer.
Every day, except Sundays and holidays, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, anyone, of any age, from anywhere in the world can telephone 212-340-0849 and ask a question. The library staff will not answer crossword or contest questions, do children's homework, or answer philosophical speculations.. The business reference desk number is 212-592-7000, ext 3.
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 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 In 2004, the library launched eNYPL, which currently features an extensive collection of downloadable audiobooks, eBooks, music and video titles.
The NYPL Digital Gallery is a database of half a million 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.
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.
Other films in which the library appears include 42nd Street (1933), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), You're a Big Boy Now (1966), Chapter Two (1979), Escape from New York (1981), Regarding Henry (1991), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and The Time Machine (2002).
The New York Public Library, serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, is one of three separate and independent public library systems in New York City. The other two library systems are the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library. The three library systems combined operate a total of 208 library branches.
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)