Different Boroughs, Different Library Systems

The library’s main branch opened at its present site adjacent to Bryant Park in 1911. (The lions out front, called “Patience” and “Fortitude” by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s, were originally known as “Leo Astor” and “Leo Lenox.”)

By the turn of the century, the city had several dozen free libraries, many of them operating independently. Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck announced a plan to consolidate them, supposedly to control costs. Pressure continued to mount in 1901, when the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave $5.2 million to construct 65 new branch libraries, on the condition the city purchase the land and provide for the buildings’ future maintenance.

Most of the city’s libraries soon merged with the New York Public Library. Brooklyn and Queens did not.

When the city then threatened to cut their allocations — on the grounds they would “not be acting in the public interest” — outer-borough officials were incensed.

David A. Boody, a former mayor of the now-defunct City of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Public Library president, opposed consolidation.

Another trustee was even more blunt: “Brooklyn has had about enough of the sort of consolidation where her interests become merged or, to speak more accurately, disappear in the interests of Manhattan.”

Needless to say, the two holdouts won.

The idea of a single citywide library system still arises now and then, usually for fiscal reasons. In 2014, Eric A. Ulrich, a Queens councilman, called for a consolidation after a report claimed the city’s libraries were on the “verge of a maintenance crisis.”

Conversations with representatives from all three systems confirmed that there is little appetite for a merger. Each system’s collections and services are tailored to the needs of its communities, a balance that has been honed over decades.

The systems frequently work together. For the city’s council’s budget process each year — all three receive a majority of their…

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