At the behest of Joseph Cogswell, John Jacob Astor placed a codicil in his will to bequeath $400,000 (equivalent of $11.1 million in 2016) for the creation of a public library. After Astor's death in 1848, the resulting board of trustees executed the will's conditions and constructed the Astor Library in 1854 in the East Village. The library created was a free reference library; its books were not permitted to circulate. By 1872, the Astor Library was described in a New York Times editorial as a "major reference and research resource", but, "Popular it certainly is not, and, so greatly is it lacking in the essentials of a public library, that its stores might almost as well be under lock and key, for any access the masses of the people can get thereto".
An act of the New York State Legislature incorporated the Lenox Library in 1870. The library was built on Fifth Avenue, between 40th and 42nd streets, in 1877. Bibliophile and philanthropist James Lenox donated a vast collection of his Americana, art works, manuscripts, and rare books, including the first Gutenberg Bible in the New World. At its inception, the library charged admission and did not permit physical access to any literary items.
Former Governor of New York and presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden believed that a library with citywide reach was required, and upon his death in 1886, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune—about $2.4 million (equivalent of $64 million in 2016)—to "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York". This money would sit untouched in a trust for several years, until John Bigelow, a New York attorney, and trustee of the Tilden fortune, came up with an idea to merge two of the city's largest libraries.
Both the Astor and Lenox libraries were struggling financially. Although New York City already had numerous libraries in the 19th century, almost all of them were privately funded and many charged admission or usage fees. On May 23, 1895, Bigelow and representatives of the two libraries agreed to create "The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations". The plan was hailed as an example of private philanthropy for the public good. The newly established library consolidated with the grass-roots New York Free Circulating Library in February 1901. In March, Andrew Carnegie tentatively agreed to donate $5.2 million (equivalent of $150 million in 2016) to construct sixty-five branch libraries in the city, with the requirement that they be operated and maintained by the City of New York. The Brooklyn and Queens public library systems, which predated the consolidation of New York City, eschewed the grants offered to them and did not join the NYPL system; they believed that they would not get treatment equal to the Manhattan and Bronx counterparts. Later in 1901, Carnegie formally signed a contract with the City of New York to transfer his donation to the city in order to enable it to justify purchasing the land for building the branch libraries. The NYPL Board of trustees hired consultants for the planning, and accepted their recommendation that a limited number of architectural firms be hired to build the Carnegie libraries: this would ensure uniformity of appearance and minimize cost. The trustees hired McKim, Mead & White, Carrère and Hastings, and Walter Cook to design all the branch libraries.
The notable New York author Washington Irving was a close friend of Astor for decades and had helped the philanthropist design the Astor Library. Irving served as President of the library's Board of Trustees from 1848 until his death in 1859, shaping the library's collecting policies with his strong sensibility regarding European intellectual life. Subsequently, the library hired nationally prominent experts to guide its collections policies; they reported directly to directors John Shaw Billings (who also developed the National Library of Medicine), Edwin H. Anderson, Harry Miller Lydenberg, Franklin F. Hopper, Ralph A. Beals, and Edward Freehafer (1954–70). They emphasized expertise, objectivity, and a very broad worldwide range of knowledge in acquiring, preserving, organizing, and making available to the general population nearly 12 million books and 26.5 million additional items. The directors in turn reported to an elite board of trustees, chiefly elderly, well-educated, philanthropic, predominantly Protestant, upper-class white men with commanding positions in American society. They saw their role as protecting the library's autonomy from politicians as well as bestowing upon it status, resources, and prudent care.
Representative of many major board decisions was the purchase in 1931 of the private library of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich (1847–1909), uncle of the last tsar. This was one of the largest acquisitions of Russian books and photographic materials; at the time, the Soviet government had a policy of selling its cultural collections abroad for gold.
The military drew extensively from the library's map and book collections in the world wars, including hiring its staff. For example, the Map Division's chief Walter Ristow was appointed as head of the geography section of the War Department's New York Office of Military Intelligence from 1942 to 1945. Ristow and his staff discovered, copied, and loaned thousands of strategic, rare or unique maps to war agencies in need of information not available through other sources.
The organizers of the New York Public Library, wanting an imposing main branch, chose a central site available at the two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. It was occupied by the defunct 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 Schwarzman Building) 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, Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the building. The cornerstone was laid in May 1902, and the building's completion was expected to be in three years. In 1910, 75 miles (121 km) 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. After a dedication ceremony, attended by 50,000 people, the library was open to the general public that day. The library had cost $9 million to build and its collection consisted of more than 1,000,000 volumes. The library structure was a Beaux-Arts design and was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States. The two stone lions guarding the entrance were sculpted by E. C. Potter and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers. Its main reading room was contemporaneously the largest of its kind in the world at 77 feet (23.5 m) wide by 295 feet (89.9 m) long, with 50 feet (15.2 m) high ceilings. It is lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony.
The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Over the decades, the library system added branch libraries, and the research collection expanded. By the 1970s, it was clear the collection eventually would outgrow the existing Fifth Avenue structure. In the 1980s the central research library added more than 125,000 square feet (11,600 m2) of space and literally miles of bookshelf space 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.
In the three decades before 2007, the building's interior was gradually renovated. On December 20, 2007, the library announced it would undertake a three-year, $50 million renovation of the building exterior, which has suffered damage from weathering and pollution. The renovation was completed on time, and on February 2, 2011 the refurbished facade was unveiled. The restoration design was overseen by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., whose previous projects include the Metropolitan Museum of Art's limestone facades and the American Museum of Natural History, made of granite. These renovations were underwritten by a $100-million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose name was to be inscribed at the bottom of the columns framing the building's entrances. Today the main reading room is equipped with computers with access to library collections and the Internet, and docking facilities for laptops. A Fellows program makes reserved rooms available for writers and scholars, selected annually, and many have accomplished important research and writing at the library.
In the 1990s, the New York Public Library decided to relocate that portion of the research collection devoted to science, technology, and business to a new location. The library purchased and adapted the former 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, 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 research library system; together they 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. The SIBL, with approximately 2 million volumes and 60,000 periodicals, is the nation's largest public library devoted solely to science and business. The NYPL's two other research libraries are the Schomburg Center for Research and Black 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 as ordinary branch libraries.
The New York Public Library was not created by government statute. From its earliest days, the library was formed from a partnership of city government with private philanthropy. As of 2010, the research libraries in the system are largely funded with private money, and the branch or circulating libraries are financed primarily with city government funds. Until 2009, the research and branch libraries operated almost entirely as separate systems, but that year various operations were merged. By early 2010, the NYPL staff had been reduced by about 16 percent, in part through the consolidations.
In 2010, as part of the consolidation program, the NYPL moved various back-office operations to a new Library Services Center building in Long Island City. A former warehouse was renovated for this purpose for $50 million. In the basement, a new, $2.3 million book sorter uses bar codes on library items to sort them for delivery to 132 branch libraries. At two-thirds the length of a football field, the machine is the largest of its kind in the world, according to library officials. Books located in one branch and requested from another go through the sorter, which use has cut the previous waiting time by at least a day. Together with 14 library employees, the machine can sort 7,500 items an hour (or 125 a minute). On the first floor of the Library Services Center is an ordering and cataloging office; on the second, the digital imaging department (formerly at the Main Branch building) and the manuscripts and archives division, where the air is kept cooler; on the third, the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, with a staff of 10 (as of 2010) but designed for as many as 30 employees.
The NYPL maintains a force of NYC special patrolmen, 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 the New York Penal Law. Some library branches contract for security guards.
In February 2013, the New York and Brooklyn public libraries announced that they would merge their technical services departments. The new department is called BookOps. The proposed merger anticipates a saving to the Brooklyn Public Library of $2 million and $1.5 million to the New York Public Library. Although not currently part of the merger, it is expected that the Queens Library will eventually share some resources with the other city libraries.
The consolidations and changes in collections have promoted continuing debate and 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". 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 been criticized. In 2004 NYPL announced participation in the Google Books Library Project. By agreement between Google and major international libraries, selected collections of public domain books would be scanned in their entirety and made available online for free to the public. 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.
The sale of the separately endowed former Donnell Library in midtown provoked controversy. The elimination of Donnell was a result of the dissolution of children's, young adult and foreign language collections. The Donnell Media Center was also dismantled, the bulk of its collection relocated at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts as the Reserve Film and Video Collection, with parts of its collection redistributed. The site was redeveloped for a luxury hotel.
Several veteran librarians have retired, and the number of age-level specialists in the boroughs have been cut back.
The New York Public Library system maintains commitment as a public lending library through its branch libraries in The Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, 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. The branch libraries comprise the third-largest library in the United States. 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, redistributed from Donnell.
The system has 39 libraries in Manhattan, 35 in the Bronx, and 13 in Staten Island. The newest is the 53rd Street Branch Library, located in Manhattan, and opened on June 26, 2016.
As of 2016 the New York Public Library consisted of four research centers and 88 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 2010, the research collections contain 44,507,623 items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.). The Branch Libraries contain 8,438,775 items. Together the collections total nearly 53 million items, a number surpassed only by the Library of Congress and the British Library.
Taken as a whole, the three library systems in the city have 209 branches with 63 million items in their collections.
Telephone Reference, known as ASK NYPL, answers 100,000 questions per year, by phone and online, as well as in The New York Times.
The Library website provides access to the library's catalogs, online collections and subscription databases. It also has information about the library's free events, exhibitions, computer classes and English as a Second Language (ESL) 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 New York Public Library also links to outside resources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, and the CIA's World Factbook. Databases are available for children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.
The NYPL Digital Collections (formerly named Digital Gallery) is a database of over 700,000 images digitized from the library's collections. The Digital Collections 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. Overall, the digital holdings for the Library consist of more than a petabyte of data as of 2015.
In 2006 the library adopted a new strategy that merged branch and research libraries into "One NYPL". The organizational change developed a unified online catalog for all the collections, and one card to that could be used at both branch and research libraries. The 2009 website and online-catalog transition had some initial difficulties, but ultimately the catalogues were integrated.
The NYPL, like all public libraries in New York, is granted a charter from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York and is registered with the New York State Education Department. The basic powers and duties of all library boards of trustees are defined in the Education Law and are subject to Part 90 of Title 8 of the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations.
The NYPL's charter, as restated and granted in 1975, gives the name of the corporation as the The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. The library is governed by a board of trustees, composed of between 25–42 trustees of several classes who collectively choose their own successors, including ex officio the New York City Mayor, New York City Council Speaker and New York City Comptroller.
There is a series of illustrated bronze sidewalk plaques featuring quotes from famous authors, poets, and other notables. "Library Way", as it is known, features a total of 96 plaques embedded along the both sides of 41st Street between Park and Fifth Avenues, approaching the New York Public Library Main Branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
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 are the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.A replica of the library is featured in Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Singapore
The library appears in such films as 42nd Street (1933), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), You're a Big Boy Now (1966), A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Chapter Two (1979), Escape from New York (1981), Prizzi's Honor (1985), Regarding Henry (1991), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), The Time Machine (2002), and Sex and the City (2008).
In The Wiz (1978), Dorothy and Toto happen on it; one of the stone lions comes to life and joins them on their journey out of Oz.
It is featured prominently in Ghostbusters (1984), when three of the main characters encounter the ghost of librarian Eleanor Twitty. Her origins and the library's prominence are explored in the video game sequel, Ghostbusters: The Video Game. In May 2010, the library invited comedy group Improv Everywhere to put on a brief performance in the main reading room based on Ghostbusters, as a promotional stunt.
It is the setting for apocalyptic science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
A thinly disguised NYPL is the workplace of a librarian with access to many mythical objects imparting magical powers for fighting evil, in The Library series of films starring Noah Wyle. The first of the series is The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2004).
NYPL is featured in the film version of Sex and the City (2008) as the location of Carrie and Mr. Big's wedding.
NYPL is featured in Oblivion (2013), starring Tom Cruise, shown as a rubble remnant of post-Apocalypse war.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz's The Writing on the Wall (2005) features a language researcher working 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.
In the 1984 murder mystery by Jane Smiley, Duplicate Keys, an NYPL librarian stumbles on two dead bodies, c. 1930.
In Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, the main character 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 used to find a missing museum object.
Lawrence Blochman's 1942 mystery, Death Walks in Marble Halls, features a murder committed using a brass spindle from a catalog drawer.
A lightly fictionalized portrait of Abraham Solomon Freidus, first chief of the Jewish Division is found in a chapter of Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).
Linda Fairstein's Lethal Legacy (2009) is centered around the library.
Laura Ruby's The Chaos King centers around the library.
The library is referred to in:James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)
Beatrice Joy Chute's The Good Woman (1986)
Henry Sydnor Harrison's V.V.'s Eyes (1913)**Stephen King's Firestarter (1980)
Bernard Malamud's short story "The German Refugee" (in his Complete Stories ; originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1963)
Christopher Morley's short story, "Owd Bob," in his humor book Mince Pie (1919)
Sarah Schulman's Girls, Visions and Everything (1986)
Isaac Bashevis Singer's posthumous Shadows on the Hudson (1998)
P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Additionally, 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.
Both branches and the central building have been immortalized in numerous poems, including:Paul Blackburn's "Graffiti" (in The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn )
Richard Eberhart's "Reading Room, The New York Public Library" (in his Collected Poems, 1930–1986 )
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Library Scene, Manhattan" (in his How to Paint Sunlight )
Arthur Guiterman's "The Book Line; Rivington Street Branch, New York Public Library" (in his Ballads of Old New York )
Muriel Rukeyser's "Nuns in the Wind" (in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser )
Susan Thomas' "New York Public Library" (the anthology American Diaspora )
E.B. White's "Reading Room" (Poems and Sketches of E.B. White )
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)
NYPL is featured in the 1972 Alice Cooper rock/pop video for Elected (1972).
It is the setting for much of "The Persistence of Memory", the eleventh part of Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series.
The animated television series Futurama has Fry confronting a giant brain at the NYPL in the episode "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid".
In the Seinfeld episode "The Library", Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) dates an NYPL librarian, Jerry Seinfeld is accosted by a library cop (Philip Baker Hall) for late fees, and George Costanza (Jason Alexander) encounters his high school gym teacher living homeless on its steps.
It was shown in the pilot episode of the ABC series Traveler as the Drexler Museum of Art.
In the second episode of "Girl Meets World" (Girl Meets Boy), Cory gives to the class an assignment to do in the New York Public Library.
The penultimate and final episodes of Season 2 of Person of Interest feature scenes which take place in New York Public Library, and is the location of the Machine's godmode phonecall after it was crashed by a virus.
In the Season One episode of The Newsroom "The Blackout Part I: Tragedy Porn", Charlie Skinner meets an anonymous NSA whistleblower in the NYPL to discuss the NSA's surveillance programs.
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 Library.
According to the 2006 Mayor's Management Report, New York City's three public library systems had a total library circulation of 35 million: the NYPL and BPL (with 143 branches combined) had a circulation of 15 million, and the Queens system had a circulation of 20 million through its 62 branch libraries. Altogether the three library systems hosted 37 million visitors in 2006.
Other libraries in New York City, some of which can be used by the public, are listed in the Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers.