BY TATYANA BELLAMY-WALKER
For more than a century, the Queens Public Library has served as a haven for education and community development. As the library heads into 2017, neighborhoods across Queens continue to shape the history of the institution.
According to “The Centennial History of Queens Borough Public Library,” a guide to the evolving history of the institution, for years the library battled with a lack of city-supported funding.
In the 1850s, the Flushing Library Association operated on a subscription basis of $2 a year or $25 for a lifetime membership. The fee was dropped in 1884 when the directors announced that the “library shall be free to all reputable residents” over the age of 14. In the 1890s, libraries branched out to parts of Ozone Park, Astoria, Hollis and Queens Village.
The Long Island City Library, which opened in 1899, observed a strict circulation policy. The library allowed residents who were 12 years old or older to reserve only two books at a time.
Steadily, the Queens Library gained support from the city. However, it didn’t occur quickly. In the early 1900s, the Tax Payers Association of Rockaway (TPA) complained that its closest library was 12 miles away. With limited access to evening bus routes, the TPA urged trustees of the library to increase funding for buildings in Far Rockaway.
The financial woes of the Queens Library were solved in 1901, when multimillionaire and industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to the city of New York. The ensuing contract called for the building of 60 library branches throughout the five boroughs.
The Queens Library received only $240,000 of this donation. According to former Queen’s Library trustee Philip Frank, $80,000 buildings would be “utterly out of proportion to the surroundings” in Queens. Carnegie’s libraries are found in parts of Flushing, Far Rockaway, Astoria, College Point, Richmond Hill, Elmhurst and Woodhaven.
In the early 1900s, Queens’ population hovered around 1 million. This led to approximately 18 traveling libraries, which were set up in local factories, jails and cigar stores.
The jump in population strained the libraries’ resources. However, the city was reluctant to increase the annual budget. During World War I, the library faced a staff shortage as several employees left their jobs for positions that paid higher wages.
The libraries provided a space for the Red Cross and book fairs for servicemen. Due to coal shortages during the war, several branches closed for “heatless Mondays.” Moreover, the sentiment of the U.S. military soon extended to the library, which dropped all German-language books from circulation.
Despite a win in World War I, America’s hard times weren’t over. During the Great Depression, the Queens Library became a source of comfort for residents. The library provided entertainment and warmth to those who could not afford heat.