Every major city has a library system, and Brooklyn is no exception. Dating back to when Brooklyn was an independent city, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is the sixth largest library system in the country, with 59 branches throughout the borough. Almost everyone in Brooklyn lives no more than one-half mile from a library.
The BPL as an entity began as a private association with the merger in 1869 of two antecedent organizations, the Brooklyn Athenaeum and Reading Room and the Brooklyn Mercantile Library Association of the City of Brooklyn. In 1878 the merged organizations were renamed the Brooklyn Public Library, but as noted, at the time it was private, not free. The library was located on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.
The city of Brooklyn established the free Brooklyn Public Library in 1896, and today the system holds more than four million items. It welcomed just under eight million visitors last year and circulated over 14 million books and electronic media.
Between 1901 and 1923, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie gave the system $1.6 million to expand the system, and more than one-third of today’s total branches were built with those funds. Twenty-one of the system’s 59 branches are still referred to as Carnegie Libraries.
The main branch of the system, at Grand Army Plaza and officially called the Central Library, was considered for the predecessor organization in 1889, but no ground was broken until 1912. The original design was an ornate Beaux-Arts affair that, because of rough economic times during World War I and then the Great Depression, was abandoned after just one wing had been constructed but not finished. The site remained dormant until 1935, at which time a new design was commissioned in the then-current Art Deco style. Shaped like an open book, with the grand, 50-foot high entrance at the binder and the front and back covers fanned out along Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway, respectively, the beautiful limestone building opened in 1941. The building is considered by experts as one of the shining stars of Art Deco design in the country.
Above the main entrance doors are arrayed fifteen bronze images representing characters and writers from the American literary canon, including Tom Sawyer, Rip Van Winkle, Hiawatha,
Walt Whitman, Winken, Blinken, and Nod, and animals including Poe’s Raven, Brer Rabbit, and Moby-Dick.
The library today is a major cultural element in Brooklyn, offering classes and programs for kids, teens, and adults, as well as seminars, talks, readings by authors and scholars on many subjects, movie screenings, and other events, all for the general public and all free. Check with your local branch for specific events.
In this age of digital images taking over from reading for many people, the library is as necessary today as it was one-hundred twenty years ago. And, in a nod to modernity, the library’s collection includes more than 700,000 digital items.
If you haven’t been to your local branch, go check it out. If you can get over to the central branch, go and check it out. And while you’re there, join the library, look through the racks, grab a book, and check it out.