In the late 19th century, very few libraries in New York City were devoted to offering collections of popular and serious reading to the general public, and especially to the city’s poor and immigrant communities. Most of the funding for such institutions flowed from philanthropists who supported research facilities in privately-owned libraries. As the New York Evening Post noted in 1880, “only one class of people in our city are unprovided for in the matter of reading — that is the very poor, some of whom cannot afford to procure their reading, and are not eligible for the free libraries.”
Fortunately, it was around this time that some members of the city’s philanthropic community started to recognize the need to support the self-education of the poor. One result was the New York Free Circulating Library, founded in 1878, with the purpose of contributing to the “moral and intellectual elevation of the masses.” Five years later, German-American philanthropists Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer started construction on the German Dispensary and accompanying library on Second Avenue near East 9th Street, with twin goals of strengthening both body and mind for their fellow immigrants in the Kleindeutschland community that existed in what is today the East Village. On January 10, 1884, the pair turned the library over to the Free Circulating Library, which named the building in their honor.
The Ottendorfer Library is the oldest branch in the New York Public Library system, officially opening to the public on December 7, 1884. (Its red-brick exterior, a combination of Italian Renaissance and Queen Anne styles, was landmarked on September 20, 1977, and its more Queen Anne–styled interior was landmarked on August 11, 1981.) The Ottendorfer also helped spur the growth of the Free Circulating Library to reach more communities in need, at first solely with private support, but by 1887 with added public funding made available through state legislation. By 1901, the Free Circulating Library was incorporated into the NYPL, creating a new network that today is the largest public library system in the nation.
Visit our Beyond the Village and Back Map here to learn more about the roles our local libraries — not just Ottendorfer but also Astor (today’s Public Theatre) and Jackson Square — played in shaping the New York Public Library system and the grand temple to books in Midtown Manhattan.
Another historic public library building, this one in Upper Manhattan, can also trace its roots back to immigrant communities in the East Village. The Aguilar Branch at 174 East 110th Street, one of the few structures to have been landmarked in East Harlem, was built in 1898–99 in “an almost theatrical manner, as if the proscenium arch were framing a stage” according to its landmark designation report (theatrical designers Herts & Tallent were its architects). The building was created for the Aguilar Free Library Society, founded in 1886 to provide circulating books for immigrant Jews. The society was named after Grace Aguilar (1816–47), a widely published British novelist and essayist of Sephardic Jewish descent perhaps best known for her book The Spirit of Judaism that she published at the age of 26.
Many of the society’s earliest branches were sited in the East Village and the Lower East Side, then the center for the city’s Jewish life and population, including 624 East 5th Street, 106 Avenue C, and 206 East Broadway (all of which have since been demolished). Thanks to these locations, the Jewish community, many of whom lived outside of the local reach of the Bond Street and aforementioned Ottendorfer branches of the New York Free Circulating library, had access to books right in their own neighborhoods.
The Aguilar Free Library network was absorbed into the New York Public Library system in 1903, further extending the latter’s reach into new and previously under-represented neighborhoods. And the Aguilar Branch, which was redesigned two years later with a more impressive facade, still thrives today for neighbors of predominantly Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, and African American descent.
Discover more about Grace Aguilar, her namesake library society, and the importance of the branches in our communities and elsewhere at our Beyond the Village and Back map here.
New York Society Library
While the New York Public Library has deep roots in our city’s history and in our neighborhoods, it’s not the city’s oldest library nor the only one that can trace its origins back to Greenwich Village. Those distinctions go to the New York Society Library, a private institution founded in 1754 in Lower Manhattan (it lent President Washington a few books back in the day), and called the Village its home for more than 80 years before moving to its present home at 53 East 79th Street.
The library was first established at 26 Wall Street, occupying a single room in the old City Hall building that later became site of Washington’s inauguration (and is today the Federal Hall National Memorial, another Beyond the Village and Back expedition). The organization moved its collection of 5,000 books to 33 Nassau Street in 1795, then Broadway and Leonard Street in 1840. In 1856, it merged with the literary and scientific club called the New York Athenaeum and needed a larger home for its growing reservoir of 35,000 volumes.
That year, the Society Library moved to Greenwich Village, into an Italianate brick building with its name declared on a grand yet welcoming facade fronting what today would be 109 University Place. (The building was demolished decades ago for the current apartment building at that address.) The institution would remain and thrive there — counting writers Herman Melville and Willa Cather as regulars — for 81 years, until moving to the Upper East Side in 1937.
Uncover the full connection between this more-than-two-century-old library and the Village in our map here.