Losing Our Way
Op-Ed by Dr. Jeffrey A. Kroessler

For more than a decade the Queens Borough Public Library has boasted the highest circulation of any library system in the country, and in all likelihood the world. This is quite an achievement considering that the institution serves the most diverse population on the planet. Since its founding as the Long Island City Public Library in 1896, they have been dedicated to bringing library services to the borough’s ever-growing population, making the most of always inadequate resources.

Given this admirable heritage, it is certainly disappointing to learn that the institution is determined to demolish the 101-year old Carnegie library in Elmhurst. Yes, the building is old, and yes, the branch is one of the most heavily used in Queens. If the QBPL says the building is obsolete, why shouldn’t they just replace it with a sparkling new structure? But what is a Carnegie Library, anyway, and why should its loss be a matter of public concern?

In 1901, on the day after the announcement of the sale of Carnegie Steel for $500 million to J.P. Morgan and associates (it became United States Steel), Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million for the construction of public library buildings across the five boroughs. He thought that libraries were the perfect object of philanthropy (as opposed to charity). “The main consideration,” he wrote, “should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” Libraries give “nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.”

In his agreement with the city, he stipulated that the branches should be open every day but Sunday from at least 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., 72 hours a week. The Queens Library’s new Long Island City branch is open 45 hours a week. Between 1902 and 1929, 67 Carnegies went up; 57 still stand, all but three still in use as libraries. The New York Public Library erected 26 branches in Manhattan, 9 in the Bronx, and 4 on Staten Island, and the Brooklyn Public Library built 21. Of Carnegie’s largesse, Queens received only $240,000, but built 7 library buildings between 1902 and 1924 in Astoria, Richmond Hill, College Point, Far Rockaway (burned), Flushing (replaced), Elmhurst, and Woodhaven.

That Queens received such a paltry percentage reflected nothing but the borough’s small population. In 1900 just over 150,000 people lived there; by 1930, however, the population had boomed to 1.1 million! How did the Queens Library serve such a booming borough? They went to where the people were, creating library stations in corner stores, factories, and offices, and renting storefronts. While struggling to serve the reading needs of their patrons, the library built only seven buildings – the Carnegie libraries.

Given the inspiring origin of these century-old buildings, why are we even discussing the demolition of one of that number? Of course, the programmatic needs of the institution have changed, with greater emphasis upon public gathering space and education, especially for English language learners and adult literacy classes. But should that condemn a building beloved by the community? Will the replacement be more “green” than the existing structure? Really, the greenest building it the one that is already built.

By focusing on the needs of the present, the Library betrays its obligation to the past. The thousands who use the Elmhurst branch – many, many of them new immigrants – surely appreciate the quality this historic and beautiful building. And no, this is not a matter of taste: each and every Carnegie is of a higher order of public architecture than what would replace them. As wonderful an achievement as the long-awaited and recently opened Long Island City branch is, can anyone honestly call it a handsome structure? Utilitarian, certainly, but scarcely in the league with the Carnegies.

After all, some of the finest architectural firms in the city designed them. McKim, Mead and White, of Pennsylvania Station fame, designed 12 branches; Carrere & Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, designed 14; Babb, Cook & Willard, designers of the Carnegie residence, now the Cooper Hewitt Museum, were responsible for 8; and Heins & LaFarge, architects for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed the Poppenhusen Branch in College Point.

If there is money to replace this branch, there is surely money to hire a talented architect to design a sensitive expansion. There are more than a few such examples in the city, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Hearst Building to, yes, the public library on 42nd Street. Rather than looking to the expedient solution of demolition and new construction, the Queens Library must commit to the preservation and expansion of the Elmhurst library. Furthermore, the city should embrace this inspiring collection of 57 Carnegie libraries. A handful have been designated as landmarks, but that is clearly not enough. All of them deserve that honor. They speak from a time when the city acted on the impulse that the public deserved the best, not merely what this year’s capital budget allowed.


Jeffrey A. Kroessler is a librarian at John Jay College, and the author of Lighting the Way: a centennial history of the Queens Borough Public Library, 1896-1996 and Historic Preservation in Queens. He is on HDC’s Board of Advisors.


 

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