Tom Glynn is the author of the new book Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911. He works as a librarian at Rutgers University, and is the selector and liaison for British and American history, the history of science, American studies, and political science.
Q: In your book, you describe the changing definitions in the 19th century of what a public library was. How did people define it then, and how does it compare with today’s definition?
A: In the 18th century and for roughly the first half of the 19th century, a public library was simply any nonprofit association that made a collection of books available ostensibly to any member of the public. Most required an annual subscription or a membership fee.
In the latter half of the 19th century, after, for example, the opening of the Boston Public Library and the Astor Library in New York, both in 1854, the definition began to shift and readers increasingly expected a public library to be free.
Today I think most people assume that a public library is free and also a municipal agency, like the public schools.
Both the original and the current definitions are not strictly accurate. The New York Public Library today, and certain other public library systems, such as the Free Library of Philadelphia, are privately managed agencies operated on behalf of the public.
The older definition was problematic in that it implied a narrow, exclusive definition of the public. A large segment of the reading public, the working class, was excluded simply because they could not afford to pay a subscription or membership fee.
What all the definitions from 1754 to 1911 had in common was the conviction that public libraries promoted the public good, that reading good books helped ensure a moral, orderly, pious republic.
Q: How does the development of New York’s public library system compare to that of other American cities?
A: New York created a public library system rather later than many other major cities. The New York Public Library as we know it today was not established until 1901, when Andrew Carnegie donated $2.5 million to construct branch libraries in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
The first large municipal system in the United States was the Boston Public Library, founded in 1848. It inaugurated the movement for public libraries in the latter half of the 19th century.
In each city, however, the development of the public library was unique, a response to local conditions. The Chicago Public Library, for example, was created after the Great Fire of 1871, when more than 8,000 books were donated from the British Isles to create a free library as “a mark of English sympathy.”
I argue in Reading Publics that the New York Public Library was founded later than other municipal systems, and managed as a public corporation rather than city agency, largely because of the presumption of political corruption. Local library supporters were reluctant to cooperate with city officials because they feared the library would become infected with “the Tammany bacillus.”
Q: During the years that you write about, what were the most popular types of library books, and how did that change over time?
A: I’m tempted to say: fiction, fiction, and also fiction, but that is a bit of an oversimplification. Especially in the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th century, history and biography were very popular. They were considered “rational amusement;” they combined the appeal of narrative with edifying, real-life examples of virtue and patriotism and thereby promoted the public good.
With some exceptions, it was not until later in the 19th century that New York’s public libraries provided a fairly wide selection of popular novels and the demand was always greater than the supply. In 1895, for example, in the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Free Circulating Library, fiction was 17 percent of the collection, but 54 percent of the circulation.
By this period, public librarians no longer considered fiction intrinsically inferior to nonfiction, but they sought to uplift, to civilize the reading public by promoting fine literature as opposed to popular fiction.
Although popular novels generally circulated much more frequently, individual “standard authors” were consistently the most sought after. For example, in the New York Free Circulating Library, Charles Dickens was the most popular author and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most popular title.
Q: Who used the libraries in New York during the years you write about? Was it only some segments of the population?
A: Most public libraries in New York before the 1880s either charged an annual subscription or a membership fee. They were therefore largely segregated by class, depending upon who could afford to patronize them.
The New York Society Library and the New-York Historical Society, for example, were very expensive and very exclusive, the “select resorts” of the city’s “first families.” The Mercantile Library Association, by contrast, was much more reasonably priced and catered to the middle-class reading public.
Working-class readers had limited access to public libraries before 1886. The Library Law passed by the state legislature that year permitted the City of New York to fund privately managed “free circulating libraries” that sought to uplift the masses by providing fine literature in small branch libraries.
At the turn of the century they became the nucleus of the New York Public Library’s Circulation Department.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m taking it easy, taking a well-deserved rest after finishing Reading Publics. I’m not sure what’s next. I enjoy Victorian-era mysteries. One topic I’ve been considering is how detectives in New York in the later 19th century were portrayed in the popular press and in popular fiction.
I’m especially interested in Thomas J. Byrnes, the first chief of detectives of the NYPD. He appears in many dime novels and is the hero in a series of books by Julian Hawthorne, a popular novelist and the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’d just like to inform your readers that the research divisions of the New York Public Library receive minimal public funds. The Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue, the Library for the Performing Arts, the Schomberg Center, and the Science, Industry, and Business Library rely primarily on income from NYPL endowments and private donations.
If you make use of these rich collections, please support them. If you click on Donate at http://www.nypl.org/support you can specify that your gift goes to a particular library or to the Research Centers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb