Tracing the Institutional Origins of the Public Library in New York: Tom Glynn's Reading Publics

Reviewed by Rob Koehler

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Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911.
By Tom Glynn.
Fordham University Press, 460 pp., $35.00.

Reviewed by Rob Koehler

Tom Glynn’s Reading Publics provides a richly detailed history of the development of libraries in New York City from the first -- the New York Society Library, founded in 1754 as a library for the new King’s College -- to the coalescence of the New York Public Library in 1911. In nine chapters, he examines a variety of institutions, including subscription, circulating, research, and collegiate libraries, giving a sense of the breadth of individual, corporate, and institutional sponsors who founded libraries in the city and the various purposes those libraries were to serve.

Grounding his account in the changing institutional fortunes of the New York Society Library, he traces how the term “public library” moved from meaning any library that was available for a member of the public to use to specifically those libraries that were funded by government bodies. Enriching that transformation in definition, he also traces the changing arguments used by library advocates to present the intellectual, cultural, and moral benefits of libraries to society, moving from claims for libraries as sites for disseminating enlightened republican virtue to sites for encouraging economic self-determination. What is perhaps most valuable about Glynn’s book for the field of library history is that it offers a synthetic account that it incorporates insights from much of the new research into the role of libraries in pre-modern America that has taken place over the last ten years. He shows a thorough command of these histories and usefully connects the New York experience to what has been argued about the changing purposes of and funding structures for libraries elsewhere in the United States.[1]

When the book falters, it is in part due to its focus on examining specific institutions. Each chapter deals with either a single library (i.e. the Library of the American Bible Society) or type of library (i.e. College Libraries). Organized in this way, the reader learns much about individual institutions, the difficulties they faced, and the means they used to construct their own identities and to attract or repel readers. Yet, institutional specificity makes it difficult to make generalizations about trends in library practice or purpose at any given point. The strength of this approach is most evident in Glynn’s chapter examining nineteenth-century college libraries, which usefully juxtaposes the efforts of Peter Cooper to make the library at the Cooper Union available to working people by extending open hours into the evening with the library at Columbia College, where the librarian returned half of his acquisitions budget each year and noted that he found students visiting the library too regularly a nuisance.[2] The differences in how these libraries interacted with their publics offers insights into their institutional cultures and also, as Glynn points out, into the value of the library itself to the mission of the institution. Yet, the weakness of this approach is evident in the chapter on the library of the American Bible Society, which seems to be as much an institutional history of the Society itself as an examination of its library.

This focus on specific institutional environments and policies provides useful and specific details about library practices, but then takes them as evidence of larger already understood political or social movements. Put another way, the libraries Glynn examines serve only as sites at which larger social and political phenomena are being enacted. While this approach is valuable because it ties library history into the larger history of the period, it leads to a peculiarly lack of agency for the individuals, groups, and institutions that Glynn describes. Thus, one comes away from reading the book with a sense of inevitability, that the New York Public Library was somehow a predestined outcome of an abstract process of the democratization of print and politics in the United States.

In making this critique, I do not want to take away from Glynn’s accomplishment in drawing together a vast body of primary institutional records but to suggest that his work opens the way to investigate how we, as historians, understand and assess the roles of institutions in everyday life. In drawing the histories of these libraries in New York into a single book, Glynn has provided a rich and valuable source for beginning to understand the intellectual environment of New York City in the nineteenth century from the ground up. The differing practices of these libraries -- how they made themselves accessible or inaccessible to users, their advertised and actual practices of purchasing books, their physical locations and layouts -- all provide insights into how books and reading imperceptibly became a normal aspect of everyday life in New York City and offer means of expanding or contradicting our understanding of how individuals and institutions articulated or suppressed the value of reading. Glynn himself offers suggestive directions for further research, such as his comment on how the value of subscription libraries as sites of middle class and elite sociability changed once those libraries began offering to deliver books to subscribers who could not conveniently come to the library. In our own moment, when the importance of the physical location of the library seems in flux due to the increasing ubiquity of digital surrogates and resources, this antecedent circumstance seems valuable for considering how libraries might adapt their services to our own moment.


Rob Koehler is a Ph.D. candidate in English at New York University.


[1] Thomas Augst and Kenneth Carpenter, eds., Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); James Raven, London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748-1811 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002); Wayne A. Wiegand, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Tom Glynn, Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 170–98.