More Than a Century of NYC’s Neighborhood Libraries
The New York Public Library is proud to honor Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the visionary philanthropist whose gift of $5,200,000 toward the building of branch libraries in New York City helped guarantee that every New Yorker has access to a library in his or her neighborhood. Spurred on by Carnegie’s historic philanthropy, on April 26, 1901, the New York State Legislature passed an act empowering the City of New York to build a system of free circulating libraries that today numbers 217 branches across NYC’s five boroughs.
Drawn primarily from the Library’s collections, the letters, documents, and photographs on view showcase Carnegie’s strong conviction—which he spelled out in an 1889 essay—that a free public library was the “best gift that can be given to a community.” In March 1901, Carnegie wrote to John S. Billings, director of the recently incorporated New York Public Library, that he would consider it a “rare privilege” to furnish the money needed for the new buildings: “Sixty-five libraries at one stroke probably breaks the record, but this is a day of big operations, and New York is soon to be the biggest of Cities.” New York was indeed the first and greatest beneficiary of Carnegie’s massive library philanthropy, which eventually extended to more than 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world.
This display not only pays tribute to Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American industrialist, but also honors the employees of the city’s three library systems—Brooklyn Public Library, The New York Public Library, and Queens Library—who carry on Carnegie’s vision of creating opportunity for all through access to books and education. Carnegie began his career toiling in a Pennsylvania cotton factory at the age of thirteen, but he was a voracious reader. A kindly neighbor lent the young man books from his personal library—and the rest is history.
Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman.