Astor Library records

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Collection Data

NYPL Archives Record Group 1 consists of the records of the Astor Library, a non-circulating reference library established in 1849 by the terms of the will of John Jacob Astor. In 1895 the Astor Library was consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust to form The New York Public Library.
Astor Library (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1839 - 1911
Library locations
New York Public Library Archives
Shelf locator: MssArc RG1 5975
Acquisitions (Libraries) -- New York (State) -- New York
Classification -- Books
Libraries -- History -- 19th century
Libraries -- New York (State) -- New York
Library catalogs
Library circulation and loans
Library finance
Research libraries -- Acquisitions
Research libraries -- New York (State) -- New York
Astor, John Jacob, 1763-1848
Cogswell, Joseph Green, 1786-1871
Irving, Washington, 1783-1859
Saelzer, Alexander
Saunders, Frederick, 1807-1902
New York Public Library
Astor Library
Annual reports
Records (Documents)
Minutes (Records)
Registers (Lists)
Biographical/historical: The Astor Library was founded as a private reference library, open free to the public, according to the terms of the will of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). Joseph Green Cogswell (1786-1871), teacher and librarian, had originally urged Astor to fund a free library. As a result, Astor bequeathed $400,000 for such an effort and in the meantime hired Cogswell to purchase books and to plan for the future library. The Astor Library was incorporated by an act of the New York State Legislature on January 18, 1849. The act of incorporation fixed the number of Astor Library trustees at eleven. The original trustees were Washington Irving, William Backhouse Astor, Daniel Lord, Jr., James G. King, Joseph Green Cogswell, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Samuel B. Ruggles, Samuel Ward, Jr., Charles Astor Bristed, John Adams Dix (who replaced Henry Brevoort, Jr., who died in 1848) and the Mayor of the City of New York. The following served as President of the Astor Library: Washington Irving (1849-1859), William B. Astor (1860-1875), Alexander Hamilton (1876-1889), Hamilton Fish (Acting, 1890-1891), Thomas M. Markoe (1891-1895). The following served as Treasurer: William B. Astor (1849), Daniel Lord, Jr. (1849-1868), John Jacob Astor (1868-1890), S.V.R. Cruger (1890), Edward King (1890-1895). The Astor Library was directed by its Superintendent and Librarian. Joseph Cogswell was chosen as the first Superintendent of the Astor Library by the Trustees in 1848 and served until 1861. Cogswell's successors as Superintendent were Francis Schroeder (1861-1871), Dr. Edward Richard Straznicky (1871-1876), J. Carson Brevoort (1876-1878) and Robbins Little (1878-1896). Beginning in 1858, the Superintendent was assisted by a Librarian, Frederick Saunders, who served until 1896. Cogswell made his first purchase for John Jacob Astor in 1839 at the auction of the library of Major D.B. Douglass. When the Astor Library opened to the public in 1854, the collection had grown to 80,000 volumes purchased by Cogswell in the United States and abroad, through book dealers and at auction. By 1890, the Astor held over 260,000 volumes, making it the largest reference library in the New York metropolitan area. From 1849 to 1853, the Astor library had temporary quarters at 32 Bond Street. The Astor Library building, designed by Alexander Saelzer and located on Astor land on Lafayette Place in lower Manhattan, opened to the public in 1854. At that time, the shelves were at almost full capacity with 80,000 volumes. An extension added to the north opened in 1859. This North Building or Hall accommodated books and readers in history and literature. Books and readers in science and the industrial arts remained in the original building, referred to as the South Building or Hall. In 1881 a second extension, adjacent to the North, was opened, and this more than doubled the capacity of the Library to a potential 400,000 volumes. The main entrance to the Library moved from the South Hall to the Middle Hall (formerly the North Hall) which was altered to hold the catalog and exhibits as well as administrative and book-storage space. The new North Hall and the South Hall both housed large reading rooms and books. The Astor Library was open to the public during the day on weekdays and Saturdays. Most readers reported to a main desk to request books which were then paged from the shelves. Some readers, usually scholars, were granted the privilege of being alcove readers, and they had full access to alcoves of books devoted to specific topics. As an institution funded by a single family, the Astor Library faced financial difficulties from its beginning. In 1894, it entered into talks to consolidate with the Tilden Trust. On May 23, 1895 the trustees of the Astor and Lenox Libraries and the Tilden Trust reached an agreement to consolidate and establish The New York Public Library. Although the Astor Library ceased to exist as a separate entity, the Astor Building continued to serve readers while the NYPL Central Building was planned and constructed. Beginning in 1895, the library was opened on Sundays and during the summer. In 1899, in a further effort toward democratization, alcove readers privileges were revoked, and all readers had to apply at the desk for books. In 1905, evening hours were added. Soon after consolidation, books were transferred between the Astor and Lenox buildings, with the Astor Building housing general literature, scientific books and serials, and duplicates. Robbins Little and Frederick Saunders retired, and NYPL Director John Shaw Billings served as head of the Astor with his office there. The Astor Library building finally closed to readers on April 15, 1911, shortly before the opening of the new Central Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Content: The Astor Library records span the years 1839-1911, with the bulk dating from the period 1870-1890. They consist of handwritten, typed, and printed documents. The records are arranged in four series: I. Administration, II. Collections, III. Readers, IV. Finance. Each series is further divided by adminstrative function and type of record. Administration records include correspondence, annual reports, notebooks, and historical material pertaining to the Astor Library. Materials in the Collections series include acquisition records, book orders, catalogs, periodicals registers and want lists. Finance records consist of correspondence, statements, checks, bank books, and similar fiscal documents. Readers records include registers of library users with statistics on books consulted and subject lists.
Content: Processing information: Compiled by Robert Sink; machine-readable finding aid created by Jim Moske.
Restriction: Volumes 8 and 10 are closed to research for preservation reasons. Readers may use photocopies of these items identified as Volumes 9 and 11.
Physical Description
Extent: 49 linear feet (72 boxes, 172 volumes, 1 reel)
Type of Resource
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b15986013
MSS Unit ID: 5975
Archives collections id: archives_collections_5975
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 7f723c10-7467-0139-b629-0242ac110002
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