Brooklyn Public Library exterior

For the past year, the Brooklyn Public Library has been celebrating its 125th anniversary, and we wanted in on the fun! On November 30, 1896, the Brooklyn Common Council passed a resolution to establish Brooklyn Public Library to nurture “the minds of the people and lay the foundation of a better civilization for the future.” A year later, the first branch opened in the former P. S. 3 on Bedford Avenue. The growth of the library system was bolstered by a $1.6 million donation from Andrew Carnegie in 1901. This money was used to open 21 new branches across the borough, 18 of which are still in use. Today, Brooklyn Public Library is one of the largest public library systems in the country, with 61 BPL branches serving over 850,000 active cardholders. To mark this special anniversary, Untapped New York collaborated with BPL to bring you 10 secrets from across the library’s many branches.

1. Bookmobiles have been running since 1951

Photo by Gregg Richards, Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

The Bookmobile, a mini moving library, started in 1951 with a collection of 2,500 volumes. A staff of six operated the vehicle. The library on wheels circulated over 10,000 books throughout hospitals, schools, summer camps, and public housing facilities, in its first year.

BPL’s bookmobiles still drive the streets of Brooklyn! You may spot one at a park, shelter, community center, or other public space. Bookmobiles travel hundreds of miles each year to bring books directly to the community. The Library also sends books by mail to homebound patrons, delivers books to hospitals and clinics, and operates a series of mobile libraries for the NYC Department of Corrections.

2. The Hidden Meaning Behind the Central Library Doors

Gilded symbols on the Brooklyn Library door

The gilded characters on the doors of Central Library may look like Egyptian hieroglyphics, but they have a very special literary meaning. The 15 golden figures are all characters from various pieces of literature. There is Meg from Little Women, Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick and Wynken, Blynken and Nod. You can see the full list of all the characters here. On the columns that flank the 50-foot-high entry portico, bas-reliefs depict the evolution of art and science. These Art Deco embellishments were created by sculptors Thomas Hudson Jones and Carl P. Jennewein.

Another fun fact about Central Library? The flagpole out front is from a ship’s mast. The Shamrock III was a yacht owned by Sir Thomas Lipton which raced in America’s Cup. Lipton was the founder of the Lipton Tea Company.

3. The Coney Island Library ceiling contains boardwalk planks

Pieces of the Coney Island boardwalk on the ceiling of the Coney Island Library
Photo by Kathleen Fowler, Courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library

Look up at the Coney Island Library! The ceiling of this south Brooklyn branch contains pieces of the famous Coney Island boardwalk salvaged from Hurricane Sandy. Coney Island Library, Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend and Red Hook libraries, all sustained extensive damage during the storm.

When the Coney Island Library was renovated after the storm, it was given a fresh new look that pays homage to the neighborhoods past. The salvaged boardwalk planks were incorporated into the design and the walls were covered in large images of Coney Island’s historic theme park attractions like the Parachute Jump and Wonder Wheel.

4. Books are sorted and processed in a warehouse in Queens

BookOps sorting facility for Brooklyn Public Library and NYPL
Photo by Sal Maggadino, Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library books are sorted and processed in a giant warehouse in Queens, along with books from New York Public Library. In fact, books from every borough except Queens pass through the massive sorting facility in Long Island City.

Known as BookOps, the 145,000 square foot facility features a 238-foot maze of conveyor belts on which books zip by. Daily, the state of the art faciilty sorts 27,000 and delivers them to 150 locations!

5. You can borrow more than just books

Photo by Gregg Richards, Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library’s collection holds more than three million items, including the first ever public musical instrument lending library. Percusion and acoustic and electric string instruments like guitars, ukeleles, and violins, as well as accessories, are available to borrow. In addition to musical instruments, the library also loans out sewing machines, telescopes, board games, and vinyl records.

In the 1950s, the Library even loaned framed art! Library card holders could take out framed reproductions of popular masterpieces for months at a time.

6. Many libraries started inside local stores

A woman browses the bookshelves at Brooklyn Public Library
Photo by Gregg Richards, Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Many libraries got their start in the back of neighborhood shops and drug stores. Before official branch buildings were built, mini libraries operated whereever they could in order to serve the rapidly growing population of Brooklyn in the early 1900s.

Neighborhoods like Canarsie, Coney Island, Kensington, Midwood, Kings Highway, and Clarendon all opened unstaffed delivery branches inside local stores. In 1939, McKinley Park Library operated out of a deposit station inside Smith’s Pharmacy on Ft. Hamilton Parkway while the branch building was being constructed.

7. Greenpoint Library gives away produce from its rooftop garden

Greenpoint Library Roof

The Greenpoint Library doubles as an Environmental Education Center, complete with a rooftop garden. The garden is used for demonstrations, to show how certain plants can grow in an urban environment. All of the produce that the library has grown so far has been given away to its patrons.

Tomatoes, kale, spinach, lemon balm, and radishes are just a few of the crops the library has produced in its first two growing seasons. There is no regular schedule for when produce is available. Keep an eye on the Library’s Facebook and Instragam pages to see when some might be available! To take part in events at the rooftop garden, check out the library’s website.

8. You can earn a college degree from BPL

Brooklyn Public Library
Photo by Gregg Richards, Courtesy of Brooklyn Library

Brooklyn Public Library is the only public library in the nation where you can earn a college degree. Bard at BPL enrolls Brooklynites and other New Yorkers of all ages who have been previously deterred or excluded from higher education. Tuition and books are fully covered.

Brooklyn Public Library also provides support for Brooklynites who are out of school and looking to start their own businesses. Brooklyn Library’s PowerUP competition provides Brooklyn’s entrepreneurs with a free business education and seed money. The PowerUP! contest has provided nearly $500,000 to over 200 entrepreneurs across the borough. Many successful Brooklyn businesses launched with help from PowerUP! including Bogota Latin Bistro, Island Pops, Green in BK and Greenlight Bookstore.

9. Construction of Central Library took nearly 30 years

Brooklyn Public Library exterior

Central Library broke ground in 1912, but didn’t open until 1941. The library that opened looked very different from the original plans. The original Central Library branch was supposed to be a grand Beaux Arts structure designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall. Only one unfinished wing of Almirall’s design was built before the entire project shut down due to World War I and the Great Depression. The unifinished wing sat alone for more than two decades.

Work resumed in 1935 with a new Art Deco design by architects Alfted Morton Githens and Francis Keally. The new, pared back plans, called for a limestone clad exterior meant to evoke the shape of an open book, “with its spine on Grand Army Plaza and two wings opening like pages onto Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue.” The opening of the library was finally celebrated on March 21, 1941.

10. The most borrowed book is Where the Wild Things Are”

A woman reads a book at Brooklyn Public Library
Photo by Gregg Richards, Courtesy of Brooklyn Library

To celebrate it’s 125th anniversary, Brooklyn Public Library released a countdown of the 125 most borrowed books. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume sits at spot 125, while the most borrowed book in the library’s history is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Rounding out the top three are two other children’s books: The Snow Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.

2022 was notable year for the library not just because of the 125th anniversary, but also because the library reached the milestone of one billion loans. A stack of one billion books would cross the Brooklyn Bridge over 129,000 times! The Time of Green Magic by HIlary McKay holds the honor of being the billionth book borrowed.

Bonus: The Library’s Welcome Center is named for a librarian turned congressman

Major Owens Welcome Center inside Central Library of Brooklyn Public brary

Congressman Major Owens, who represented Brooklyn in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 terms, began his career working as a librarian in Central Library. He liked to joke he was the Librarian in Congress. Today, the Central Library’s Welcome Center is named for him.

You can continue to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of BPL by checking out upcoming library events and by leaving a birthday wish!

Next, check out Top 10 Secrets of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street