New York State Librarians

bookplate with John Cook's signature

John Cook - First State Librarian, 1818-1823

In 1815, a common reproach of Albany by travelers was "As dull as Albany" -- that was until an English expatriate named john Cook opened a bookshop and reading room in New York's capital city.  Cook was a bookish man of modest income who was proprietor of John Cook's Reading Room and Library.  In addition to running the subscription library, he supplemented his income with the sale of mineral waters from Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa.

At some point, Mr. Cook came to the attention of the newly installed Governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton.  Governor Clinton had proposed the creation of a library at the seat of government and signed a bill into law in April of 1818.  The state legislature named four state officials as trustees of the library: Governor DeWitt Clinton, Lieutenant Governor John Tayler, Chancellor James Kent of the Court of Chancery, and Chief Justice Smith Thompson. The trustees named John Cook as the first State Librarian, a position he held until his death in 1823.


Bookplate with Calvin Pepper's signature

Calvin Pepper - State Librarian, 1823–1826

Calvin Pepper was appointed State Librarian in 1823. Mr. Pepper had no discernable connection to libraries or to bibliology; he was presumed to have been a lawyer, as he defended a resident of Albany for allowing his hogs to run free within the city limits in 1833.

Pepper's public service did not end with his term as State Librarian. In 1829 Calvin Pepper served as clerk of the county board of supervisors.

Mr. Pepper died at the age of 67 in 1850.


Bookplate from James Maher's tenure as State Librarian

James Maher - State Librarian, 1828 – 1839

James Maher was born in Ireland where he lived for thirteen years until he emigrated to Albany, New York to join his parents.  After an apprenticeship with a tobacconist, in 1810 he started a very successful wholesale and retail business.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Maher organized Irish locals to create the Republican Green Rifle Company also known as the Irish Greens, which he captained.  The Company was one of the more successful of the Irish Companies that fought with distinction in the war.  The Irish Greens captured Little York on the Canadian border.

Upon his return to Albany as a military hero, he began a political career.  Maher was a leader in the Fourth Ward.  He represented Martin Van Buren's Albany Regency.  His political success garnered his rewards, in 1828 he was appointed clerk of the markets, a very good position for a grocer, and state librarian.  Both positions were political patronage positions.  In 1829 he was elected alderman.

Significant acquisitions during Maher's tenure as state librarian included the purchase of the Audubon Folio of American Birds and The Natural History of New York, a product of the New York Geological Society.
bookplate from Robert Brown's tenure as State Librarian

Robert Brown - State Librarian, 1839 – 1841

Robert Brown was the first American-born State Librarian.  The son of a tailor, he made his mark in the raucous political environment of Albany, New York. In 1839 the Albany Common Council created the office of auditor and elected Brown to the position. In the same year, he was appointed to the position of State Librarian. His appointment set off a war of words between the two local newspapers, the Democratic paper, the Argus and the Whig leaning paper the Evening Journal

According to the Argus, Robert Brown was "one of the greatest 'pot house brawlers and political blackguards' in the federal ranks."  The Evening Journal described his as "well qualified for Librarian, ... an active, indefatigable politician."

Brown, thanks to the support and encouragement of Governor Seward, was instrumental in improving the physical state of the State Library after it fell into a questionable state. During his tenure, the library acquired the three volume Codex Theodosianus, printed at Lyons, France in 1665.

Robert Brown remained in office until the Regents assumed trusteeship of the State Library and replaced Brown with their first appointee, William Cassidy.


photo of William Cassidy

William Cassidy - State Librarian, 1842-1844

William Cassidy was a journalist, essayist, critic and State Librarian. He was educated at the Albany Academy and graduated from Union College in 1833. Cassidy may have been the first college graduate to be the New York State Librarian.

Cassidy studied law in the Albany offices of Judge McKown and John Van Buren (son of the eighth U.S. president, Martin Van Buren).  Although he passed the bar, he never practiced law; Cassidy was considered a brilliant journalist and his true and preferred talent was writing caustic observations on the local political environment.

In the upheaval of the Albany elections of 1841, the Democrats regained control of the Legislature and three of the five-member board of trustees of the State Library placed William Cassidy as the State Librarian. He held the position from 1842 to 1844.


John L. Tillinghast - State Librarian, 1844 – 1848

John L. Tillinghast was the first State Librarian appointed to the position under the auspices of The Regents of the University of the State of New York.  Tillinghast attended Union College (1804) and Columbia University (1906).  He was an attorney, admitted to the Bar in 1820.  He served as the first district attorney for Tioga County, NY (1818 – 1822); later he wrote extensively on civil procedure.

Tillinghast put into effect the first reforms made under Regents' administration.  There is a presumption that he was appointed State Librarian as a place holder until someone could be appointed "with reference to his state and knowledge of books," as desired by the Regents.

When Tillinghast left the position in 1848, the library collection consisted of 17,571 volumes: 7,399 law books and 10,172 miscellaneous volumes.

Based on the writing of Cecil R. Roseberry, A History of The New York State Library.


Portrait of Alfred Street

Alfred Billings Street - State Librarian, 1848-1862

Street was born in Poughkeepsie, New York and educated at the Dutchess county academy. He originally practiced law, but his real interest was apparently literature. He edited the Northern Light from 1843 to 1844, and was a published poet. He was appointed New York State Librarian in 1848, a position he held until 1862; he was subsequently the law librarian until 1868. Street died in 1881.

Image: Portrait of Alfred B. Street by Asa W. Twitchell


photo of Henry A. Homes

Henry Augustus Homes - State Librarian, 1862-1887

Dr. Henry Augustus Homes joined the State Library in 1854 and became the Librarian of the general library in 1862. He held that position until his death in 1887.

Henry Homes was born in Boston, MA. He attended Andover Academy, Amherst College and Yale Medical College; later he also studied Arabic and other languages in Paris.  He joined the American Board of Foreign Mission and served in present-day Turkey and throughout the region.  In 1850, Dr. Homes left the Board and joined the American Foreign Service serving in Constantinople.

In a tribute to Henry Homes upon his death, George W. Kirchwey, of the Albany Institute, wrote:

"What rare combination of moral and intellectual qualities were required to develop the general library of the State from a miscellaneous colletion of 25,000 books into an orderly, harmonious arrangement of 100,000 selected volumes, to put this great collection into the foremost rank among the great libraries of the country and to maintain it there, . . ."

Under his leadership the New York State Library acquired the papers of Governor George Clinton, Governor Tompkins, Sir William Johnson, and those of Henry Stevens relating to the history of Vermont before it was separated from New York.

(Excerpted from the extracted minutes of the Board of Regents, January 12, 1888.)


Photo of George Howell

George Roger Howell - Acting General Librarian, 1887-1888

George R. Howell was born in Southampton, Long Island. He attended school in Southampton, then entered the sophomore class at Yale College and graduated in 1854. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1864.

In 1872, Mr. Howell was appointed assistant librarian in the New York State Library. During his tenure with the Library, he was instrumental in creating the Manuscripts and Special Collections division.  He served as the Acting Librarian for the general library for the period between the death of Dr. Henry Homes in 1887 and the appointment of Melvil Dewey in 1888. 

Mr. Howell was the author of the early history of Southampton, Long Island with geneaologies, and of Noah's Logbook.
Portrait of Melvil dewey

Melvil Dewey - State Librarian, 1888-1905

Melville (Melvil) Louis Kossuth Dewey was an American librarian and educator, who is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Dewey Decimal system of library classification. Born in Adams center, New York on December 10, 1851, Dewey earned a bachelor's degree from Amherst College in 1874 and a master's degree, also from Amherst, in 1877. While he was at Amherst, Dewey was hired to manage the library and reclassify its collections, which lead to his development of the Dewey Decimal System.

Dewey served as chief librarian at Columbia University in New York for five years, before becoming the director of the New York State Library in 1888. From 1888 to 1900 Dewey also served as secretary and executive officer of the University of the State of New York. During his tenure at the New York State Library, Dewey completely reorganized the State Library to improve efficiency, including implementing his classification system, and also established a system of state travelling libraries.

Image: Portrait of Melvil Dewey (1924) by Elizabeth Gowdy Baker


Photo of Edwin Anderson, circa 1915

Edwin H. Anderson - State Librarian, 1905-1908

Edwin H. Anderson was a native of Indiana.  He earned bachelor's and master’s degree from Wabash College.  In 1890, he attended the New York State Library School, but left before completing the program.  Anderson returned to Indiana to work as cataloger at the Newberry Library. 

In 1905, Anderson returned the New York State Library as State Librarian. During his time at the State Library, plans were devised for the construction of the State Education Building, which was to be erected around the State Library; however, Anderson left the State Library before construction began on the building.

Anderson left the state library in 1908 to become Assistant Director of New York Public Library. In 1913, he assumed the position of president of the American Library Association. Throughout the 20th century, Anderson was recognized as a library leader, most significantly for the establishment of librarian education programs at both Pittsburgh and at New York Public Library.

Image: Courtesy of the American Library Association Archives.


James Ingersoll Wyer

James Ingersoll Wyer, Jr. - State Librarian, 1908-1938

James Ingersoll Wyer had been in the employ of the New York State Library for two years, as reference librarian and vice director of the Library School, when he was appointed State Librarian in 1908. Wyer remained in that position for 30 years and lead the library through some of the most tumultuous years in its history.

A native of Red Wing, Minnesota, James Wyer attended the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska. He graduated from the New York Library School in 1898; returning to earn a master’s degree in Library Science.

When Dr. Wyer became State Librarian, the library was in the State Capitol. Plans were underway to move it into the soon-to-be-constructed State Education building. Before construction on the new building finished the Capitol suffered a fire that destroyed the library. One human life was lost and over five million dollars in books and collections were destroyed by the fire.

Wyer managed the library through the limbo stage of rebuilding after the fire.  He led the library centennial celebration that welcomed dignitaries from all over the world. During WWI, Wyer organized the library to aid the military effort, and created an inter-library loan program with military training camps that was a model for a nationwide program. The library also extended its reach into small and rural communities during his tenure.

Dr. Wyer's "New York idea" defined the State Library for most of the 20th century: "the New York idea of the State Library... is of a great central reference and lending library adequate to the great University system of the State ..."


photo of Joseph Gavit

Joseph Gavit - Acting State Librarian, 1938-39 and 1944-45

Joseph Gavit, (1876-1959) retired from the New York State Library in 1946, after a 50-year career during which he rose from junior clerk to associate librarian, as well as serving twice as acting state librarian. During and after his service he was widely respected as an authority on the library's history and collections and as a bibliographer, historian, and genealogist.

Gavit's term of service encompassed an important period in the development of the State Library, including the administration of Melvil Dewey (Librarian, 1880-1905), the destruction of the library by fire (1911) and its subsequent relocation and rebuilding through the depression of the 1930s and two world wars. Furthermore, it was a significant period in the development of the library profession, marked by the influence of pioneers such as Dewey, the growth of professional organizations and library schools, and controversy over such matters as professional qualifications and civil service status for librarians.


Photo of Robert G.W. Vail

Robert William Glenroie Vail - State Librarian, 1940-1944

Robert W. G. Vail was born in Victor, New York.  A graduate of Cornell University, Vail attended the Library School at the New York Public Library.

After military service during WWI, Vail served as librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society. In 1921, Mr. Vail returned to New York to serve as librarian of the Roosevelt Memorial Association.  In 1930, he became librarian of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Vail left that position in 1939 to become the New York State Librarian, a position he held for a four-year period that coincided with American participation in WWII. In 1944, he left the New York State Library to become director of the New-York Historical Society.

Many significant collections came to the library during the Vail administration. In the 1930's the industrialist William C. Gotshall bequeathed the library his extensive private library.  During the Vail tenure, the Gotshall Collection was augmented by the purchase of a near complete set of New York's colonial session laws for the period 1736 – 1743.  Coincidental to the Gotshall purchase came a gift of the records of the Burden Iron Company of Troy, New York. These records provide insight into a company that supplied iron and steel products to the railroads industry and to government during the Civil War.

Robert Vail was the recipient of two honorary degrees: Doctor of Letters from Dickerson College; and Doctor of Humane Letters from Clark University.

Image: Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City.


Photo of Charles Gosnell

Dr. Charles F. Gosnell - State Librarian, 1945-1962

Dr. Charles Gosnell served as State Librarian and Assistant Commissioner for Libraries for seventeen years.

During his years at the Library he developed the plans for the support and extension of library service through the State. He pioneered the formation of rural library systems based on local initiatives. His many achievements in New York State inspired similar development in other states. Under Dr. Gosnell's direction the State Library, Medical and Law Libraries were rehabilitated with plans developed for the rehabilitation of other library areas.

Dr. Gosnell left the New York State Library to become Director of the New York University Library.


Photo of Gilbert Prentiss

S. Gilbert Prentiss - State Librarian, 1962–1967

Mr. Prentiss attended high school in Syracuse, New York.  He graduated from Syracuse University School of Library Science.

S. Gilbert Prentiss was appointed state librarian in 1962.  He was a member of the state library staff for 17 years, serving as director of the Library Extension Division and as a staff assistant to the Commissioner of Education’s Committee on Public Library Services and Reference and Research Library Resources.

During Mr. Prentiss’ tenure as State Librarian a new acquisition policy was formulated, the Regents Library Council was reactivated, and a Governor’s Library Conference was held to chart new pathways for libraries.


John Ames Humphry - State Librarian, 1965-1977

John Humphry was appointed State Librarian in April 1967. A graduate of Harvard College, he earned his bachelor of science and bachelor of library science at Columbia University, School of Library Science. Prior to coming to Albany, he served as director of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Mr. Humphry prepared the library to move into its sixth and current home, the Cultural Education Center on the Empire State Plaza.

After his retirement, he promoted the international use of the Dewey Decimal system in other languages. Mr. Humphry was the Executive Director of the Forest Press from 1977 to 1985.


portrait of Joseph Shubert, seated with his dog.

Joseph F. Shubert - State Librarian, 1977-1996

Born and raised in the Buffalo, NY area, Joseph F. Shubert received his bachelor's degree from the State University at Geneseo and his masters in library science from the University of Denver. Shubert began his professional career as reference and documents librarian at the Nevada State Library in 1951. He eventually served as State Librarian of Nevada, and later of Ohio, before returning to New York in 1977 to take the position of State Librarian and Assistant Commissioner for Libraries at the New York State Library, a position he held until his retirement in 1996.

Mr. Shubert's 19 years included continuous improvement of both New York's State Library and its comprehensive library system. Under his expert leadership, State funding for library development programs and statewide library services increased by $56 million, from $26 million annually in 1976 to $82 million annually in 1996.

For more information about Joe Shubert, see the interviews below, which appeared in staff newsletters at the beginning and the end of his tenure with the New York State Library.


photo of Janet M. Welch

Janet Martin Welch - State Librarian, 1996-2008

Janet M. Welch was appointed as New York's State Librarian in 1996 and served until her retirement in 2008. Welch, a magna cum laude graduate of Bucknell University, earned her Masters of Library Science degree from Rutgers University. A certified School Library Media Specialist, Welch held leadership positions in university, public, school and corporate libraries throughout her career. Prior to her appointment to the New York State Library, Welch served as Director of the Rochester Regional Library Council, a network of 500 libraries in the Rochester, New York area.

The first woman to serve as State Librarian, some of the accomplishments during Welch's tenure included a major renovation of the Research Library, enhancements to the Talking Book and Braille Library, and important additions to the State Library's collections.

Statewide, libraries also saw some significant changes during this period, including:

  • substantial funding to aid from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to aid public access to computers in libraries throughout the State,
  • a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to help recruit a new and diverse generation of librarians,
  • increases in the number of children participating in the Statewide Summer Reading Program,
  • the creation of 35 new public library districts, which extended service to approximately 300,000 New Yorkers, and
  • the creation of NOVELny, a program that made online news, health and educational databases available to all New Yorkers.

Welch's awards include the American Library Association Award for Nationwide Library Legislative Success and Improvement of Library Services for the American People and NYLA President's Award for development and leadership of the nationwide Public Awareness of Libraries Campaign. In June 2005 she was honored by the American Library Association for her outstanding work in supporting and strengthening library services in New York State.


Photo of Bernard Margolis

Bernard A. Margolis - State Librarian, 2009 -

Bernard A. Margolis began serving as New York State Librarian and Assistant Commissioner for Libraries in January 2009. Reporting to the Commissioner of Education, Margolis administers the New York State Research Library and the Division of Library Development. Margolis came to the State Library from his previous post as President of the Boston Public Library (BPL), Boston, Massachusetts, where he served from 1997 to 2008. The Boston Public Library is the oldest municipal public library in the country, with 27 neighborhood branches.

Margolis holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in Librarianship, both from the University of Denver.  His library experience includes management and executive positions in libraries and library systems in Colorado, Michigan and Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Boston, he served as Director/CEO of the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs from 1988 to 1997.

Margolis' service includes a number of positions within the American Library Association including service as an elected member of the governing Council, leadership in the Association of Research Libraries, service as a professional delegate to the White House Conference on Libraries, and service on the boards of library organizations in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Michigan. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Library Administration and Bottom Line: The Magazine of Library Financial Management. He has contributed to several books and has published articles in American Libraries, Public Libraries, and Library Journal.


Last Updated: October 20, 2017