Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Immigrants and the New York Public Library

Public Affairs intern and urban history student Penny King guest blogs about the role public libraries play in helping immigrants assimilate while staying connected to their heritage.

Last week, the New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg voted to restore City funding to keep the New York Public Library open six days a week. I'm thrilled to hear this news, especially because libraries have long served as important public institutions to immigrants. The Ottendorfer Branch library, in the East Village, opened in 1884 when that neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. Reflecting the surrounding community, half of the original 8,000 books were in German.

The NY Public Library's 42nd Street branch, circa 1910 - 1915, courtesy of Detroit Publishing Company

Upwardly mobile immigrants have always sought to expand their knowledge, and their enthusiasm for libraries is great. In 1903, the New York Evening Post reported: “The Jewish child has more than an eagerness for mental food: it is an intellectual mania. He wants to learn everything in the library and everything the libraries know.”

This sentiment was also echoed in immigrant literature. In the short story “How I Found America” (first published in 1920), author Anzia Yezierska depicted an Eastern-European immigrant who dreams of America as a place where “learning flows free.” As the main character made the voyage to America, she imagined what she would find: “I saw before me free schools, free colleges, free libraries, where I could learn and learn and keep on learning…Like a bird in the air, from sky to sky, from star to star, I'd soar and soar.” In the story “Wings,” Yezierska describes the thrill of visiting a library for the first time.

1909 Photograph of immigrant women studying at a night class

Libraries continue to help immigrants maintain a connection with their heritage as well as navigate the process of assimilation to the United States. The Queens Library, with 62 locations in one of the most culturally diverse counties in the nation, offers international language collections, citizenship and ESOL classes, and cultural programs celebrating arts from around the globe. The Queens Library has the highest circulation rate of any public library system in the country.

Libraries are more than just collections of books – they are dynamic and valued public institutions. I applaud the New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg for their support of the New York Public Library.


  1. I heartily agree with Penny King. I think the NY Public Library is one of the most important institutions in the city -- and always has been.

    Two of my favorite collections are housed in branches of the NYPL -- The Picture Collection at the Mid-Manhattan branch and the Lower East Side Collection at the Seward Park Branch -- both secret gems of the city!

  2. Queens Library (another of NYC's three public library systems) is still a magnet for immigrants from all over the world. Its Long Island Division offers photos and records of Queens in its earliest days. It's a treasure!


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