Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Libraries (New York)
Author:
Green, Charles B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The earliest libraries in New York City existed as private collections, some of substantial holdings by the eighteenth century. With the exception of a small deposit of books in Trinity Church, recorded in 1698 and considered the first known nonprofit library, there were few library enterprises in the eighteenth century. The first library of significance was founded in 1754, when a period of cultural awakening led to the establishment of the New York Society Library, an institution modeled after Benjamin Franklin's Library Company of Philadelphia. The New York Society Library originally operated as a subscription, or social, library which charged a fee for its use and for many years was an enclave for the city's elite. Many of its first directors were also involved in the founding of King's College in 1754, which would later become Columbia University. The college's library, which reached ninth in holdings among American libraries by 1876, was established in 1757. In 1763 the bookseller Garret Noel opened a for-profit lending library and reading room, the first of its kind in the city, the third in the colonies, and from 1797 to 1804, the finest mercantile lending library in North America was operated by Hocquet Caritat of New York City. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, specialized libraries began to surface around the city, notably at the New York Historical Society, Union Theological Seminary, New York Hospital, and the New York Academy of Medicine.

As additional libraries continued to appear throughout the city during the nineteenth century, there can be little doubt that Walt Whitman made use of the increasing availability of books. The circulating library in the village of Jamaica, for example, where Whitman lived while working for the Long Island Democrat, contained four hundred volumes in 1838. One of several libraries established for the education and moral improvement of urban workers, the Mercantile Library was probably the best-known of its time. It was established in 1821 with seven hundred volumes, and clerks could subscribe by paying an initiation fee of one to two dollars for full use of the reading room and the library. Between 1830 and 1854 it was housed in Clinton Hall at the corner of Nassau and Beekman Streets, a short distance from the boarding houses that Whitman lived in during the years 1842–1844. By 1857 it had holdings of over forty thousand volumes and was later transformed into a general subscription library. Another library within easy reach for Whitman, the Apprentices' Library, was established by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in 1820 as a free institution reserved for the exclusive use of apprentices. By 1857 it had developed a significant collection of general literature numbering some fourteen thousand volumes. The first privately endowed, independent, free public reference library in the United States was also available to Whitman. The Astor Library, considered the best research library in New York at the time, was established in 1848 and by 1864 it contained over one hundred thousand volumes. Other libraries that Whitman could have accessed include the Harlem Library (1825), the Washington Heights Library (1825), the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library (1820s), and several libraries in Queens.

Between the 1870s and 1890s many of the privately endowed free lending libraries began to receive municipal appropriations under New York state law and were eventually converted into free public libraries. The founding of the New York Public Library in 1895, a merger of the Astor Library, the Lenox Library, and the Tilden Trust, created the impetus for establishing a system of public libraries in New York City, and shortly after the city was consolidated in 1898 it agreed to build and maintain a central building in Manhattan for the institution. These events culminated in the establishment of three public library systems: the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Borough Public Library, and the New York Public Library. The establishment of the New York Public Library, combined with a gift of funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, became a catalyst for the absorption of most of the city's free lending libraries and for the construction of new branch library buildings throughout the city. The municipality, in turn, agreed to provide annual maintenance for a public library service, and public libraries in New York City thus became permanently established as essential public services. Whitman, of course, left New York City in the early 1860s and so would not have used the libraries that emerged later in the century.

Bibliography

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Keep, Austin Baxter. The Library in Colonial New York. New York: Ben Franklin, 1970.

Rajasekharaiah, T.R. The Roots of Whitman's Grass. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1970.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.


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