The founders of the great libraries of the 19th century were often ambivalent about whether their goal was to disseminate or conserve knowledge. They were also uncertain about the intended audience. John Cotton Dana of the Newark Public Library was atypical in his populist stance that “it is a proper function of a library to amuse.” He argued that a “shallow mind” was better than an “empty one.” Other librarians preferred to see themselves as cultivators of public taste and their buildings as uplifting houses of culture. The stuffiness and remoteness of late nineteenth-century libraries provoked this humorous sketch, published in Life magazine in 1884, which satirized the closed-door practices of the theoretically “public” library donated by wealthy James Lenox to New York City.
THE LENOX LIBRARY
What is this?
This, dear, is the great Lenox Library.
What is it for?
But I thought you said it was a library.
So I did.
Then there must be books in it
Why is it called the “Lenox” Library?
Because it was founded and given by Mr. James Lenox.
Given to whom?
To the city of New York.
Oh! then it is a public library?
How delightful! Why it must be very useful to students and the reading public?
But why are the doors locked?
To keep people out.
But I thought you said it was a public library?
So I did.
Then how can they keep people out?
By locking the doors.
To keep the pretty books from being spoiled.
Why!who would spoil the pretty books?
By reading them.
Gracious! What are all those brass things on the roof?
What are they for?
To blow the heads off students who want to get in.
Why! and see those gallows!
And people hanging!
Who are they?
Students who got in.
But is there no way of getting into the library without being shot or hanged?
By writing an humble letter of application to the kind Lord High Librarian.
He will refer you to the 1st Assistant Inspector of Character.
It will go to the Third Deputy Examiner of Morals.
He will pass it on to the Comptroller of Ways and Means.
He will, after mature deliberation, send it to the Commercial Agency.
To get a proper understanding of the applicant’s solvency.
Then it comes back for the monthly meeting of the Sub-Committee on Private Inquiry.
To ascertain if the applicant has any real necessity for consulting any particular book in the library.
And suppose he has?
Why, then the paper goes to the Sub-janitor.
And what does he do?
He finds out if the Astor or the Mercantile Libraries have the book.
And if they have?
He tells the applicant to go there and consult it.
But if they have it not?
Then the application goes to the Commissioner of Vital Statistics.
For what purpose?
To ascertain if the applicant is still living.
And if he is?
At the next annual meeting of the Board of Directors, if there is a quorum present, which sometimes happens, he will get a ticket entitling him to admission between the hours of two and three on a specified day.
But if the applicant is busy on that day at that hour?
He forfeits his ticket.
But how’s the public benefited by this “public” library?
Ask the Trustees.
Source: Life, 17 January 1884. Reprinted in Harry Miller Lydenberg, History of the New York Public Library (New York: New York Public Library, 1923), 113–115.