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New display celebrates Andrew Carnegie's inspiring gift to New York City: Its public libraries
Williamsburgh Library, Brooklyn. 6 x 7 1/4. Brooklyn Public Library.

NEW YORK, NY.- The New York Public Library opened a new free display celebrating over 100 years of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s inspiring gift to New York City: its network of public libraries.

Celebrating Carnegie’s Gift to New Yorkers: More Than A Century of NYC’s Neighborhood Libraries will run through May 10 in the McGraw Rotunda on the third floor of The New York Public Library’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. It includes several historic items from the Library’s collections, as well as artifacts from the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library, and photos from the past and present of branches across the five boroughs.

The two-case display celebrates the unique agreement between Carnegie and the City of New York, in which Carnegie donated buildings to be used as public libraries, and the City agreed to pay for their maintenance and operations. The dream was that all New Yorkers would have access to free public library service “promoting the education and enjoyment of the people and of making good citizens,” according to a letter in the display from NYPL President John Shaw Billings to Carnegie in 1902.

The first step in this historic agreement (a resolution passed by the New York State Legislature empowering the City of New York to acquire sites for “free branch public libraries for circulation with reading rooms and other necessary accommodations”) was signed on April 26, 1901 – 114 years ago.

“This is a perfect moment to celebrate Carnegie’s unique and inspiring gift to the city,” said NYPL President Tony Marx. “Public libraries are doing more for the people of New York City than ever before, offering a multitude of free services and opportunities for all. As the city's libraries continue to advocate for city funding, it is important to honor the spirit of the original agreement, and ensure that our public libraries remain strong.”

Items displayed in the exhibition – which come from the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, the Irma and Paul Milstein Division for US History, Local History, and Genealogy, the Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, and others – include:

• Draft and final versions of a 1901 letter from Carnegie to Billings finalizing details of his $5.2 million gift to build libraries. In the letter, Carnegie states that it would be a “rare privilege” to provide the funding.

• A 1901 telegram from Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck to Carnegie thanking him for his “splendid generosity.”

• The 1902 letter from Billings to Carnegie, in which Billings outlines his plans for a “free public library system for New York City.”

• A May 1, 1906 report to the mayor of New York from the Trustees of The New York Public Library documenting progress of Carnegie branches in Manhattan, Bronx, and Richmond (as Staten Island was then known.

• A January 2, 1913 document tracking payments from Carnegie to The New York Public Library, with a balance of $635,879.13.

• Numerous photos – both past and present – of Carnegie branches across the five boroughs, including images of branches under construction and the Yorkville Branch on the Upper East Side – the first Carnegie branch.

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