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New York Public Library Celebrates 100 Years

The nation's largest public library system, the New York Public Library, opened the doors 100 years ago this month. The library's rich legacy is tied to industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Carnegie was an immigrant whose gift of more than five-million dollars led to the construction of 65 libraries in New York City by 1930.

By the second half of the 19th century, more people lived in New York than in Paris, and the relatively new city was gaining on London, then the world's most populous city. One-time New York governor Samuel Tilden believed that the burgeoning metropolis deserved a free library and reading room and, upon his death in 1886, left the city $2.4 million to establish just such a venue.

In March of 1901, more than a year before the cornerstone of the Library's flagship building was laid, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to expand the fledgling system to include 65 branch libraries. Library president Paul LeClerc says the gesture was unprecedented. "He spent, in terms of today's dollars, over a $1 billion building libraries in about 1,400 communities in the United States," says Mr. Leclerc. "So, we're also celebrating the centenary of this particular library, the Yorkville library, but we're also celebrating the centenary of one of the most magnificent acts of philanthropy ever."

The first branch of the New York Public Library, which opened in 1902, was not the world's first Carnegie library. That distinction goes to a lending library in Dunfermline, Scotland, Carnegie's birthplace. Nor was it close to the last, Carnegie gave over $43 million for nearly 3,000 libraries around the world, including 23 in New Zealand, 13 in South Africa, and one in Fiji.

The New York Public Library's main building in midtown Manhattan, which finally opened in 1911, is its best known. The massive, pillared structure guarded by giant stone lions is difficult to overlook. But Mary Ann Corrier, Deputy Director of Branch Libraries, says that Carnegie libraries had to meet strict architectural criteria. "He believed very strongly that libraries should reflect the nobility of learning. He specified with his architects that he wanted places to be palaces of learning," says Ms. Corrier. "They had wonderful finishes and wonderful entrances, and were intended to serve the population."

Every Carnegie library has a lamppost in front, symbolizing enlightenment. Former library president Vartan Gregorian says the availability of books to the public was an issue close to Mr. Carnegie's heart. "As a child, he could not afford to buy books or borrow books, but a person who was friendly lent him books. So he made a vow that when he has the means, he will be sure that libraries are free for people."

Carnegie biographer David Nassau, who calls Carnegie the only robber baron with a conscience, says the benefactor's astonishing gifts came with strings attached. "I was just in Washington reading this wonderful letter from Pittsburgh begging him for some money for some books. To which he replied, I'd love to do it, but I can't. The people of Pittsburgh have to support this library or it won't work."

So he set in motion not only the building of public libraries, but the understanding among the people and the political leadership of the city that this was a public responsibility as important as building the roads, constructing the sewers or keeping the police force together.

Today, the New York Public Library boasts more than two-million cardholders, more than any other library system in the United States. Library president Paul LeClerc believes Carnegie would be proud of how his gift of 100 years ago has developed. "The public libraries in New York last year had over 40-million visits. I think that's more people going through library doors than in any other city on the planet," he says. "I think he'd be very, very happy with his investment, and the returns to the people in terms of education, enlightenment, social promotion, all those kinds of good things he believed very deeply in." And, says Mr. LeClerc, Andrew Carnegie's gift continues to evolve. Today, New York City libraries provide free access not only to books, but to videotape, compact discs, and the Internet.