One-hundred and three years ago, on May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft dedicated the New York Public Library, the largest marble structure in the nation. Located at Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets in Manhattan, it cost $9 million and took 14 years to build.
It was the culmination of more than a half-century of effort. Sixteen years earlier to the day, on May 23, 1895, representatives of two libraries agreed to create the new library, hailed as private philanthropy for the public good.
Earlier, John Jacob Astor had placed a codicil in his will that left $400,000 for the creation of a public library, and Astor Library was built in the East Village in 1854. It was a free, reference library and its books did not circulate.
By 1872, the Astor Library was a major reference and research resource, but was lacking in the essentials of a public library. The New York State Legislature incorporated the Lenox Library in 1870, and it was built at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in 1877.
Philanthropist James Lenox donated his manuscripts and rare books, including the first Gutenberg Bible in the New World. This library charged admission and did not permit physical access to its collection.
Former NY Governor Samuel Tilden felt that a new library was needed, so upon his death in 1886 he bequeathed $2.4 million to establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the City of New York.
The newly established library consolidated with the New York Free Circulating Library in 1901, when steel baron Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to build 65 branch libraries, with the requirement that they be maintained by the city.
Later that year, Carnegie transferred his donation to the city to allow it to purchase the land to house the libraries. The Brooklyn and Queens branches did not join the NYPL system because they felt they would not be treated equally with the Manhattan and Bronx branches.
The NYPL board of trustees hired consultants and accepted their idea that only a few architectural firms be hired to build the Carnegie libraries to ensure uniformity of appearance. McKim, Mead & White; Carrère and Hastings, and Walter Cook designed the branch libraries.
Today, the NYPL has 53 million items and is the nation's second-largest public library, behind the Library of Congress. It is an independently managed, nonprofit corporation that operates with private and public financing, and is visited and used by 10 million people annually.