An Irish immigrant, Ezekiel J. Donnell (1822-1896), was a very successful cotton merchant and historian of cotton who wrote Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton, published in 1872, as well as other books. He was an early proponent of public education and advocate of free trade.
Donnell bequeathed the sum of $1,000,000 – back when that was a lot of money – to pay to “erect a fireproof building suitable and proper for the purpose of a library....with a reading room open free every day in which young people can spend their evenings profitably away from demoralising influences.” This was to be the Donnell Free Circulation Library and Reading Room. The Donnell Library Center finally opened in 1955.
Edgar I. Williams (1884-1974) and Aymar Embury II (1880-1966) designed the Donnell Library, which stood at 20 West 53rd Street. When it closed in 2008, the press reported the Donnell Library was one of two libraries the NYPL planned to sell to help fund the Main Branch (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) renovations.
In the spring of 2008, the Donnell Library Center began to close. A small operation with a circulating collection in the basement stayed open until the end of August. The five- story building, built in 1955, stood north of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by much taller skyscrapers and there was much speculation over the years that it might be demolished to make way for a commercial building, Sewell Chan and David Giambusso reported in The New York Times in 2008.
The Donnell Library held approximately 300,000 items and was noted for strong collections of foreign language materials, movies and music, and books for children and teenagers. The children’s room of this library formerly housed the Winnie the Pooh and Friends doll collection of original Winnie-the-Pooh toys Christopher Robin Milne (1920-1996) played with a child in Ashdown Forest, inspiring his father, the playwright and author Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) to write short stories and poems about the adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.
On his first birthday, Christopher Robin Milne received an Alpha Fanell teddy bear initially named Edward, as movie location scout Nick Carr recounted in a blog post in 2011. Christopher Robin Milne later re-named the teddy bear Winnie in honor of a real bear named Winnipeg in the London Zoo, as Carr alluded to in his blog post and depicted in the TV film A Bear Named Winnie (2004).
C. R. Milne donated the toys to his father’s American publisher E.P. Dutton in 1955, and the publisher donated the toys to the NYPL. In 1998, the collection of English dolls – Pooh Bear, Kanga, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet – kept in a bulletproof case became a cause-célèbre when Gwyneth Dunwoody, Member of Parliament, claimed she “detected sadness” in the dolls and called for their return to England.
This resulted in Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani leaking a conversation he had with Pooh Bear, Representative Nita M. Lowey introducing a resolution in Congress to keep the stuffed animals at the NYPL, and Prime Minister Tony Blair saying on ABC’s Good Morning America, “I’m sure they're perfectly well looked after where they are.” The Winnie the Pooh and Friends doll collection and other collections were temporarily housed in other branches.
This collection opened in a room at the Main Branch. Carr documented how the exhibit was fairly spartan, but after fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman asked if the walls were still bare, Carr revisited the exhibit in 2011 and showed how the exhibit had been augmented by murals and a new stuffed animal Christopher Robin never owned, Lottie the Otter, a character from Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, a recently-published, authorized sequel.
David S. Ferriero, then Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries (and now Archivist of the United States), opined that many people (employees, volunteers, writers, and publishers) who were concerned about the loss of the Donnell Library and feared its collections would be broken up did not realize a new Donnell Library would replace the old one. In 2007, Orient-Express Hotels, Inc., which owned the 21 Club, south of the Donnell Library Center, announced an agreement to raze the five story, limestone-clad building, and replace it with an eleven-story building that would mostly be devoted to a 150-room hotel with a restaurant on the top floor, but also house a new library with a separate entrance on the ground floor and two subterranean levels. The $220,000,000 construction project was supposed to begin in 2009 and be completed in 2011. Under this plan, five floors of the hotel would have been connected to the 21 Club, which was founded in Greenwich Village and has been at this location since 1930.
The NYPL stated the replacement of a library building by a multi-use building was necessary because the Donnell Library required costly repairs the NYPL could ill-afford. The purchase price of the library building site, between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue and across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, was reportedly $59,000,000. NYPL President Paul LeClerc announced the proceeds were to be spent on building projects at other branch libraries.
Orient-Express Hotels, Inc. made an initial payment of $7,000,000. In March of 2009, Robin Progrebin reported in the Times that the NYPL planned to use the money from the sale of the Donnell Library to pay for the transformation of the Main Branch into a circulating library, a project to be overseen by the British architect Norman Foster.
As Ms. Progrebin explained, the NYPL also planned to sell its Mid-Manhattan Branch, on the east side of Fifth Avenue, at the intersection with 40th Street, have the Main Branch absorb its collection, and also use the proceeds from the sale of that library to help pay for Foster’s renovation of the Main Branch. Ms. Progrebin was describing elements of the Central Library Plan.I
n March of 2009, Orient-Express Hotels, Inc. announced it wanted to “defer or restructure” the project, but continued to make payments to the NYPL. Subsequently, the company sold the structure to the companies Tribeca Associates and Starwood Hotels. In October of 2011, demolition of the former library building began. It is the plan of Tribeca Associates to replace it with a 260,000-square-foot combination condominium/hotel/library building, a $400,000,000 structure, as Theresa Agovino related in a Crain’s New York Business article.
In September of 2008, the NYPL closed two divisions at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. These were the Slavic & Baltic Division and the Asian & Middle Eastern Division (formerly the Oriental Division).
There are no curators. The reading rooms closed. The books moved to the stacks.
Former Curator John Lundquist gave a dismal picture of the NYPL in Marilyn Johnson’s book This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.
Our division has been dissolved… Our librarians have been reassigned…. In theory we continue as collections, the Asian and the Baltic, but I’m highly skeptical…. The whole library has been drastically downsized…. There has been nothing about this in the press… Obviously the library doesn’t want any publicity…. They foresee many thousands more people in this building, and that, to them, is a worthy goal. There is a perception that libraries are archaic, dead, outdated, and that everything is now on the Internet, in digital form. We are old, stooped-over people, doing old, stooped-over things… I gave a talk about my new book across the street at the Mid-Manhattan branch. That place is utter chaos. And it will all come here—the noise, the teenage problems, the circulating DVDs.
The last remark was another allusion to the Central Library Plan calling for the collections at the Mid-Manhattan Branch, a circulating branch library, and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), a research library like the Main Branch, to the Main Branch, the sale of those buildings, the transfer of little-used books to off-site storage, and the transformation of part of the Main Branch into a circulating branch library.
Helen Hoogenboom, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, wrote a letter to LeClerc in July of 2010 to protest the closure of the NYPL’s famous Slavic & Baltic Division. As recounted by Scott Sherman in the December, 2011 issue of The Nation, a NYPL official responded on LeClerc’s behalf, “If I may put this matter into its sadly grim financial context, in the last two fiscal years our budget has been reduced by $20 million and our workforce by 300 positions. While we recognized and prized the special cultural and scholarly resource that was the Slavic Reading Room, we simply could no longer afford to operate it.” Under new President Anthony W. Marx, on November 17, 2011, Stephen Corrsin, who was already Curator of the Dorot Jewish Division, became “curator of Slavic, Baltic and Eastern European collections,” on a part-time basis, as Sherman explained.
 Like his father, Christopher Robin Milne studied math at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College. After being wounded in Italy as a platoon commander in World War II, C.R. Milne married his first cousin, Lesley de Selincourt. Together, they ran The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth for over twenty years and in the 1960s often spoke at mertings of the School Library Association. He wrote several books, most of them of an autobiographical nature. As his father’s biographer related in an Independent article, C. R. Milne sold his share of royalties to the Pooh books to the Royal Literary Fund and used the proceeds to establish a trust fund for his daughter, Clare, who was born with cerebral palsy.