We’ve Come a Long Way Baby: A Backward Glance at Library Service Availability at the Municipal Colleges

By Sandra Roff

You are still waiting for that interlibrary loan book or perhaps a video that you wanted to show your class, and you are wondering what is taking so long. After reviewing Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries 1754-1911 by Tom Glynn it became clear that in the nineteenth-century, at a time when reading was the only way to get information, the availability of libraries was extremely limited, and what we now recognize as the job of a library was not realized until the twentieth century. The earliest libraries that opened in New York City operated as private corporations, with the wealthy buying shares to borrow books. Special interest groups also started libraries such as the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, who had a library with a small annual fee. The New-York Historical Society opened in 1805 with a mission to collect New York City materials, but again membership was restricted to the elite. Other libraries followed but they all required a fee and in addition, many had extremely limited hours.

Normal College Library (Later Hunter College). Hunter College Archives.

Normal College Library (Later Hunter College). Hunter College Archives.

College libraries as seen through a twenty-first century lens are places students and faculty can frequent almost anytime, with some offering 24-hour service. In the first decades of the nineteenth-century there were two colleges in New York City — Columbia College and the City University of New York (NYU), both private colleges admitting an elite class of men. There was a movement to open a college for young men who could not afford the tuition at the private schools and in 1847 New York City succeeded in opening the Free Academy.

THE FREE ACADEMY of the city of New York is the first institution established in this State by the popular sovereignty, and maintained at the public expense, for the purpose of extending to the pupils of the Common Schools the advantages of free education in those higher departments of learning, which cannot be obtained but at a considerable expense in the colleges previously established in this State.[i]

The College of the City of New York Library, 17 Lexington Avenue. Baruch College Archives

The College of the City of New York Library, 17 Lexington Avenue. Baruch College Archives

The new 17 Lexington Avenue building opened with a very small library. In 1852 Charles Edward Anthon became the first librarian, but he oversaw a relatively small collection. The Board of Education of the City of New York was not able to secure funds for a larger library, and the collection grew only because of generous private donors.[ii] “This department [the library], however, has been effectually cared for by several of our citizens. In 1852, Ephraim Holbrook bequeathed $5,000 toward its increase, and in 1857 Seth Grosvenor bequeathed $30,000 to be permanently invested, and its income to be expended, under certain conditions, in the purchase of books.”[iii]

Although the holdings of the library slowly increased, the access was shockingly limited. “The Library shall be opened to students every alternate Friday throughout the Academic Terms, from 8 ½ to 9 A.M., for the return of books, and from 3 to 3 ½ P.M. for the delivery of books; and it shall be the duty of the Librarian to be in the Library at those times.”[iv]This same statement appeared in the Annual Registers through 1864, but in 1866 when the Free Academy became the College of the City of New York there was a small change. “The Library shall be opened to students every alternate Friday throughout the Collegiate Term, from 8 ½ to 9 A.M., for the return of books, and from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. for the delivery of books; and it shall be the duty of the Librarian to be in the Library at those times.”[v]

This wasn’t much of an improvement in library access and the Annual Registers have the same statement until the mid-1870s when mention of the library disappears from the Register. In the Annual Register of 1894-1895 the library is mentioned with a tally of the number of books but nothing about hours of access. “Books may be taken from the Library by the students as well as the instructors; by the Alumni upon a deposit of ten dollars; and by teachers of the common schools of the city.”[vi]This same statement appeared in the Registers into the 20th century when the College of the City of New York moved its main campus to 138th street and Convent Avenue in 1907. In the 1914-1915 Register not much changed, but the library for the first time had an entire page devoted to it. “The Library of the College is open to all for reference. Books may be borrowed by persons connected in any way with the College. The departmental collections are accessible during hours which are stated for each department.” [vii] This was a more user-friendly announcement.

Volume from the original City College library. Baruch College Archives

Volume from the original City College library. Baruch College Archives

By 1917 there was a movement afoot to raise enough money to erect a new Library building. The alumni, undergraduates and friends of the College needed to raise $150,000! “We should like to raise a sufficient amount to erect a large library building which could provide accommodations for all the societies and organizations of the College and of the Alumni. Furthermore, the committee has under consideration plans which they hope will make this library not only available for all the students, but also will render service to the community at large.”[viii]

In 1911 the new central building of the New York Public Library opened on 42nd street, dedicated to serving all New Yorkers. This was in sync with the movement that started at the end of the nineteenth-century to open libraries to all classes of citizens.

Consequently, the desire of the College of the City of New York to consider the library for the community fit the new model of a municipal college library. In describing the conditions of the library which was available at the 138th street campus the flyer stated: “In the various departments of the College over 9000 students are registered, but our library facilities are not equal to those of some colleges smaller in number… The present library barely served its purpose when the College moved to the Heights and had an undergraduate department of about 1000 students.”[ix] President Sidney E. Mezes addressed the library committee. “[We] train people to investigate so they know where to get their facts when they want them. The only way to train people to do that is by means of a Library.”[x]

A new library building opened in 1929, but not with all the provisions that were originally requested. In the 1930 Annual Register, no mention is made of the library hours.[xi] The only statement on access is that books can be borrowed by anyone connected with the college, meaning that library availability to the community was not realized.

What library facilities were available to women in the new municipal Normal College opened in 1870? The planning for a college for women took many years and when finally it came to fruition the facilities provided for students were not adequate. In the 1879 Annual Report of the President of the Normal College the Reference Library is described:

The nucleus for a Reference Library has been formed by the purchase of several hundred volumes of the most valuable works, embracing classics, English literature, history, science and pedagogy. A few hundred volumes added every year would, in a short time, build up just the kind of library which we need — a professional library, similar to that of a lawyer or a physician.

The report went on to say that they didn’t feel that a Normal College needed a general library.[xii] The information about the library was scanty during the early years, but by 1885 there was a movement by the alumnae to raise money for a library for the graduates. “The Alumnae…appeal to the public spirited citizens of New-York to help them to raise funds for the foundation and maintenance of a reference library adequate to the needs of the 3,000 graduates.”[xiii]The alumnae organized several fairs to raise money for a library. In December of 1887 a holiday fair was held at the Hotel Brunswick with articles for sale to benefit the library fund. “Under a Library Committee…there has thus far been realized from donations and fairs some $1,300 in money, and 1,300 volumes of various kinds of books.”[xiv] The next year there was another holiday fair raising a significant amount of money for the library.[xv] By the summer of 1888 an alumnae library was finally established. “The Committee on Normal College generously fitted up and adorned a handsome room, last summer, for the Library which now contains about 4,000 volumes. To Miss Marguerite Merington great credit is due for her unwearied efforts in behalf of the Alumnae Library.”[xvi]

The student body continued to grow and the library needed to accommodate the needs of the additional students. The alumni library eventually became the college library and an official librarian was appointed in 1896. In the 1898 Annual Report it was noted that “the old calisthenium was converted into a large library and the old library into two fine recitation rooms.”[xvii] By the beginning of the 20th century the college library was of concern to the new Acting President of the College, Joseph A. Gillet, who appointed Dr. Margaret B. Wilson honorary librarian. During her tenure library hours were increased and other library improvements were made.[xviii]

The Normal College became Hunter College on April 2, 1914, and the library became even more important with the new expanded curriculum. By 1938 a new building for the college was in the planning stages and the new library was carefully thought out. Knowing that the majority of students use the library between classes, they wanted to provide adequate space for the students to study. “To provide for these students, plans have been made to obtain a maximum seating capacity and to allow more space than usual for each student working in the library. About 1,650 students will study simultaneously in the new library quarters, with some of the reading rooms holding as many as 400 students.”[xix]

There was no way for the early library visionaries to know what was coming in the 21st century and how quickly information access could change. However, what is apparent is that the concerns for student satisfaction and access to information has changed in the last 175 years and the availability of libraries and library services to students is of primary concern to college administration. The future is yet to be determined, but we can foresee that libraries of the future will provide services that cannot be imagined today.

Sandra Roff is Professor and Head of Archives and Special Collections at Baruch College.


[i]Ninth Annual Register of the Free Academy of the City of New York 1857-1858.New York: Wm. C. Bryant & Co., 1857: 11.

[ii]S. Willis Rudy, The College of the City of New York: A History 1847-1947. New York: The City College Press, 1949:48-49.

[iii]“The New York Free Academy,” American Educational Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 3 ( March 1865): 68.

[iv]Ninth Annual Register of The Free Academy of the City of New York 1857-1858. New York: Wm. C. Bryant & Co., Printers, 1857: 38.(Gateway to North America database)

[v]Eighteenth Annual Register of The College of the City of New York. New York, 1866: 36. (Gateway to North America database)

[vi]University of the State of New York. The College of the City of New York Forty-Sixth Annual register. 1894-1895. New York, 1895: 40. (Gateway to North America database)

[vii]The College of the City of New York Sixty-Sixth Annual Register 1914-1915. New York: 1915: 119. (Gateway to North America database)

[viii]Associate Alumni Library Committee of the College of the City of New York. n.p., 1917: 002. (Gateway to North America database)

[ix]Ibid, 003.

[x]Ibid, 004.

[xi]The City College Annual Register for 1930-1931. New York, 1930: 128.

[xii]Ninth Annual Report of the President of the Normal College, for the year ending December 31, 1879, to which is appended a catalogue of the students. New York: 1880:43-44.

[xiii]“In Need of a Library,” The New York Times. December 10, 1885: 8.

[xiv]“Who Will Aid the Fair? Normal College Alumni Want a Library Fund,” The New York Times. December 2, 1887: 2.

[xv]“Fair for the Normal College Library,” The New York Times. December 7, 1888: 2.

[xvi]Eighteenth Annual Report of The Normal College for the year ending Dec. 31, 1888. (New York: 1889: 25.

[xvii]Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of The Normal College for the Year Ending December 23, 1898. New York, 1899: 11.

[xviii]Sandra Roff, Anthony Cucchiara and Barbara Dunlap, From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847-1997 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000): 34.

[xix]“Hunter to Provide a Central Library,” The New York Times. October 2, 1938: 60.