Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911

by Tom Glynn. Fordham University Press, New York. 2015. 447 pp. $35.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-8232-6264-9.

Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911 by Tom Glynn is a collection of thematically and chronologically linked essays addressing the “more than a century and a half of public library development on the island of Manhattan” (1) that culminated in the establishment of the New York Public Library. Glynn ties a number of themes together in this expansive study: republicanism and liberalism, the creation of institutions and the communication of meaning, high-culture and self-culture, as well as an emphasis on the mediating role of fiction. The collection contributes depth to our understanding of the roots of the American public library. The research draws on primary and secondary sources, and generates an impressive 129 pages of notes, grounded in a 23 page bibliography. While focused on New York City, the developmental tensions resonate for the history of libraries as cultural institutions across the U.S. The volume is recommended for academic history, communications, and library/information science collections, as well as public libraries with professional collections. It provides significant content for public library history classes, if any are being taught in our current neo-Gilded Age.

An introduction and afterword, both of which focus on the idea of “reader,” bookend the nine chapters that primarily address the library as a social institution. For Glynn “public libraries are institutions that connect and mediate between readers and books” (14). His chapters explore the various publics allowed in to the libraries and the collections that supported assorted agendas. The chapters address such organizations and libraries as the New York Society Library, the Apprentices’ Library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, the New York Historical Society Library, the American Bible Society Biblical Library, New York’s research libraries, the Lenox and the Astor, as well as the Cooper Union Library, and the New York Free Circulating Library. The research touches on the value of the Jewish Aguilar Free Library and the Catholic Cathedral Free Circulating Library, which each maintained the second and third largest branch library system in the city, respectively (207). All of these contributed to the founding of the New York Public Library, though some more so than others. Some chose not to participate at all. The Maimonides Library, a research collection founded by B’nai B’rith, for instance, chose to close its doors rather than become part of the New York Public Library.

Glynn focuses on the class tensions that are reflected in the emergence of these institutions. Writing of the development of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, he notes that the Cooper Union library was “like the Astor … a noncirculating [sic] ‘reference library’ but it was considerably more welcoming and accessible to the public” (181). The Astor was mocked for its inaccessibility and Joseph Cogswell, head of the institution, noted that it wasn’t intended “for the great mass of the people” but for “men of leisure and men of letters” (163). Cooper Union, however, was a “pioneering philanthropic institution for the education of the working class” (187). Glynn determines that the “free circulating libraries were established by the city’s elite as a means of bridging the economic, social, and religious divisions of late nineteenth-century New York. In some respects, however, the libraries were a reflection of those divisions” (201), thereby suggesting an inadequacy of elite institutions in advancing the republican values that influenced the founding of the American experiment in democracy.

Given the role of philanthropy in the development of the public library, Glynn pays significant attention to the roles of the “great men” engaged in their development. James Lenox, who amassed a fortune in real estate, used his money to acquire significant “bibliographic treasures” (156). Lenox then used his collection to establish a library which opened – intermittently -- to the public in 1877, but it was a very limited, elite public. John Jacob Astor made his money in the fur trade of the West and invested his earnings in New York real estate. A friend of Edward Everett and George Ticknor, patrons of the Boston Public Library, Astor established the Astor Library in his will. With his passing in 1848, the Astor Library was established, and opened in 1854 as the largest library in the city (161). Peter Cooper worked in a number of<  occupations but earned his fortune through  “a number of lucrative inventions” (178) and real estate investment. Cooper considered the general library and reading room of his technical college a “special delight” (181). Andrew Carnegie was instrumental in the consolidation of the independent public library systems into the New York Free Circulating Library, and, with his unique pairing of philanthropic beneficence with financial commitment from local government, secured his status as the popular agent of the American public library. Other advocates of public librarianship, such as the “wicked triumvirate” of William Livingston, John Morin Scott, and William Smith, Jr. (22); New York first family member John Pintard (104); and of course, Columbia librarian Melvil Dewey all receive their due in the discussion of New York’s library history.

However, the “benevolent ladies from the Grace Episcopal Church” who established the first free circulating library in New York (201) and were “instrumental in the passage of the Library Law of 1886” (202) remain essentially nameless; librarian Ellen Coe is mentioned, but we learn nothing about her. This is, unfortunately, not uncommon in library history. While Glynn recognizes that the women who established the free branches were essentially dismissed from governance of the institutions they launched, this is a major hole in the study. Perhaps it presents another research opportunity in the exploration of public library history in New York.

Finally, related to the production of the physical book, there are a number of editing errors within the collection, four on one page. A university press can do better.

Dr. Joyce Latham,  Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee