Monday, February 28, 2011
To understand the experiences of the NYPL branch librarians, one must understand the unusual governance structure of the New York Public Library.
NYPL was formed in 1895 by the merger of the Astor and Lenox Libraries and the Tilden Trust. This created what came to be called the Reference Department, which was primarily funded by NYPL’s private funds. In 1901 New York City accepted Andrew Carnegie’s offer to donate $5.2 million to build branch libraries if the City would agree to maintain them in the future. Carnegie’s money prompted the New York Free Circulating Library (which had 11 branches) to consolidate with NYPL, and this created the NYPL Circulation Department (CD).
As a result, a private organization (NYPL) signed a contract with the City of New York to provide branch library services in the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens had their own library systems). Funding for the Circulating Department came almost entirely from money allocated from the New York City budget. Thus the branch system operated under the many constraints imposed by the annual need to negotiate salaries and book allocations with the City administration, and the Circulation Department therefore had less authority over its operations than did the NYPL Reference Department.
Over the years, the fate of the CD budget rose and fell based on any given Mayor’s interest in libraries, and the budget was devastated by the City’s dire financial situation during the Great Depression.