Wednesday, March 26, 2014


NYPL’s branch librarians loved books and looked suspiciously on new media that might reduce reading by children and adults.  They initially viwed both moving pictures and television as potential threats.  In each case, the librarians’ reactions to the new medium started with suspicion and ended with accommodation.  Here is a previous post about the initial reaction to television in a Bronx neighborhood.

The history of the Ottendorfer Branch illustrates this point in terms of motion pictures.  Ottendorfer, the second branch of the New York Free Circulating Library, opened in 1884 to serve a largely German population in what is now known as the East Village in Manhattan.

In December 1912, John Shaw Billings (NYPL’s Director) wrote the NYC Commissioner of Licenses to protest the opening of a movie theater next to the Ottendorfer Branch.  He argued that “it is not desirable on general principle to have movie picture establishments close to schools, public libraries and other places to which women and children are accustomed to go in large numbers. … around the entrances to such theatres there are usually displayed highly colored pictures, flaring electric lights, etc., which have a tendency to attract idlers.”  Despite Billings protest, the Commissioner granted the license.

In her annual report, Lucie Bohmert, the Branch Librarian, blamed Ottendorfer's decreased circulation in 1925 in part to “a successful moving picture house adjoining the Library.”

Just four years later, however, Bohmert’s annual report noted that the movie house was showing foreign films and boasted that the theater’s owner had agreed  to promote Ottendorfer’s foreign book collection in its program.

Over the course of 17 years, the Library had gone from protest to incorporating moving pictures into its community outreach activities.  

When I moved across the street from the Ottendorfer Branch in the early 1970s, both the library and the movie theater were thriving, and the theater was still featuring foreign films.

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