Image via New York Public Library
The Astor Library was one of the first important public libraries in New York City. John Jacob Astor pledged $400,000 to create a reference library using the books from the great book collector and librarian Joseph Green Cogswell. Opened on January 9th, 1849, the library stood on the east side of Lafayette Street, south of Eighth Street, where the Joseph Papp Public Theater currently stands.
While the idea of a public library is edging on populist, the founders of this library weren’t as idealistic as expected. Cogswell wrote in a letter, “‘It would have crazed me to have seen a crowd ranging lawlessly among the books, and throwing everything into confusion.” Because of Cogswell’s aversion to the masses, the Astor Library was a closed stacks library. This means patrons couldn’t take out books, they had to request them from librarians. The Astor Library was also only open to the public during daylight hours, thus limiting the kind of people who can come to the library.
Even though the New York Daily Tribune described the library as having a ”reputation for churlishness and indifference,” the Astor Library was still an important resource in New York City. By 1892, the Astor Library was running into several financial problems along with the other popular public library of the time, the Lenox Library (which stood at the site of the Frick Museum). By 1895, the two libraries joined forces under the guidance of attorney John Bigelow, and they combined their collective works to form the New York Public Library, to be constructed on Fifth Avenue.