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Ottendorfer Library: A Chronicle of Diversity and Knowledge in the East Village

Nestled in the vibrant streets of New York City’s East Village at 135 Second Avenue, the Ottendorfer Library stands as a testament to the multicultural and linguistic tapestry that has woven itself into the city’s history. Founded by a visionary immigrant, the library has played a pivotal role in fostering diversity, education, and cultural exchange. The German inscription between the first and second floors of the building tells you what the building was built for and what it remains to this day, “Freie Bibliothek u. Lesehalle.” (Free Library and Reading Room). When the Ottendorfer opened its doors on December 7, 1884, it mainly served the large German-speaking community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) that lived in the East Village and Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th century. New York was the third largest German-speaking city in the world at this time, after Berlin and Vienna.

The German inscription on the front of the Ottendorfer Library. Translated in English to “Free Library and Reading Room.”

The Ottendorfer Library owes its existence to Oswald and Anna Ottendorfer. Oswald was a prominent figure in the German-American community during the late 19th century. Ottendorfer, born in 1826 in Zwittau, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic, then part of the Austrian Empire), immigrated to the United States after taking part in the 1848 revolutions. Arriving in New York City, he quickly recognized the need for cultural and educational spaces that catered to the diverse immigrant population. When he landed in the United States, Oswald himself reflected his multi-ethnic homeland, able to speak German, Latin, Greek, several Slavic languages, and Hebrew, but not English.

Oswald Ottendorfer’s likeness on a cigarette card from the late 19th century.

Ottendorfer worked his way to became a successful businessman and publisher of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a German-language newspaper, and sought to create a haven for knowledge that would bridge the gap between different communities. His wife was his business manager until she died in 1884, before the library opened. The Ottendorfers established the library as a testament to their commitment to fostering intellectual growth and cultural exchange among the city’s residents.

During its early years, the Ottendorfer Library primarily functioned as a German-language institution, serving the substantial German-speaking immigrant population in the area. The library housed a vast collection of German literature, newspapers, and periodicals, providing a sense of familiarity and connection for those far from their homeland. Nearly half of the library’s collection was in German when it opened.

Ottendorfer Library, in the center, circa 1890-1910.

Beyond its collection, the Ottendorfer Library served as a gathering place for the community. It hosted lectures, discussions, and cultural events that helped preserve and celebrate the rich heritage of its patrons. The library’s role extended beyond literature, becoming a hub for intellectual and social exchange.

As the Ottendorfer Library became part of the New York Public Library in 1901, first serving as one of the original branches of the New York Free Circulating Library, its collection evolved to reflect the new wave of immigrants settling in the neighborhood. By 1902 its collection included books in Russian and in the following years it added materials in Czech, Slovakian, Polish, Chinese, Ukrainian, French, Spanish, and Italian.

The Ottendorfer Library in 2022

The Ottendorfer Library stands as a living testament to the power of cultural diversity and the enduring value of knowledge. Founded by an immigrant visionary, it has transcended its original purpose to become a beacon of inclusivity, connecting people across languages and cultures. As New York City’s landscape continues to evolve, the Ottendorfer Library remains a steadfast symbol of unity and learning in the heart of the East Village.

If you’re interested in learning more about the library and about how it was landmarked in 1977 check out our Landmark Designation Reports resource, which includes historic districts and individual landmarks, such as the Ottendorfer Library.

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