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A Capital Asset
The History and Resources of the New York State Library

By Melinda Yates, Senior Reference Librarian, New York State Library

This article appeared in Capital Neighbors Volume 2, Number 4 and Volume 3, Number 1 (Winter 1996 and Spring 1997).

Note: Unless otherwise noted, the quotations in this article are taken from Cecil Roseberry's A History of the New York State Library (1970).

To many readers of Capital Neighbors, the State buildings in the Empire State Plaza are the antithesis of neighborhood. On the "Neighborhoods" map which appears in each issue of this publication, they are omitted -- their marble mass deftly reduced to a narrow black line labeled Madison Ave.

Since 1976, the Cultural Education Center has stood on the south side of this stretch of Madison Ave. -- adjacent to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, between the Mansion and the Hudson/Park neighborhoods. Though technically a part of none of the "capital" neighborhoods, the Cultural Education Center is home to three State agencies that are an invaluable and remarkably accessible resource to residents of the capital community: the State Library, the State Museum and the State Archives. Of these, the oldest is the New York State Library, which has been a capital neighbor since 1818 when it was established by an act of the New York State Legislature "for the use of the government and people of this state."

What most readily defines a "state" library -- and distinguishes it from a public or university library -- is its legal mandate to serve the executive, legislative and judicial branches of its state's government. Located in the state capital, it is normally the main repository for state and local history and often has extensive holdings in law and subjects related to public policy. To this extent, the New York State Library conforms to the standard definition of a state library. But in the volume, scope, quality and wide dissemination of its collections and services, it is like no other.

New York was the third state to establish a state library, preceded (closely) by Pennsylvania in 1816 and Ohio in 1817. Today, the New York State Library is the largest of the nation's state libraries ( having over 19 million items) and the only one to qualify for membership in the prestigious Association of Research Libraries. How it rose to its present pre-eminence is a fascinating, suspenseful and even uplifting chapter in library and State history.

That history began with the election of Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1817. For in Clinton, New York had a governor highly disposed to the creation of a state library. A man of vision and learning, Clinton had assembled an extensive personal library of "scarce and valuable works," and while mayor of New York City had actively promoted the New York Institution -- a kind of Cultural Education Center -- which held various "literary, artistic, and historical societies." He believed government had a responsibility to foster cultural institutions, because "whenever such institutions appear...there will always be an intimate and immutable alliance between their advancement and the glory and prosperity of the state."

There was also the practical, and increasingly pressing, need for a repository in which to store the growing number of State laws and documents -- in addition to the federal laws, journals and documents the State had been receiving from Congress since 1813. (The State Library is a full Regional Depository for U.S. government publications and patents.)

The State Library opened with the start of the 1819 Legislative session. Heated by firewood and lit by candles, the Library was located on the second floor of the original Capitol, a graceful building designed by Philip Hooker with a cupola and a portico of four Ionic columns. The building, which stood slightly to the east of the present Capitol, housed not only the Library and the Legislature but also the Governor's office, the Mayor's office and several State and municipal courts. Its first director was John Cook, who prior to his appointment had run a popular and respected reading room on lower State St. Its first trustees were Governor Clinton, Lieutenant Governor John Tayler, Chancellor James Kent and Chief Justice Smith Thompson. Its collection contained 669 volumes and 9 maps, the titles of which are listed in the Library's first annual report.

In A History of the New York State Library -- an excellent and entertaining account of the State Library's first 165 years -- Cecil R. Roseberry notes that "considerably less than half" of these volumes fell "under the heading of law, statute, and political economy books." The majority were works of literature, history, biography and travel. Among these early volumes were a first edition of Chaucer, Aristotle's Ethics and Politics and a recent life of Robert Fulton by Cadwallader Colden, a New York State legislator. From its beginning -- just 18 years after the founding of the Library of Congress -- the State Library was an institution that supported State government but also promoted "liberal learning." Indeed it has often been said that the State Library is to the State what the Library of Congress is to the nation.

Of the Library's benefactors, none was, perhaps, more visionary or magnanimous than Alexandre Vattemare, a French ventriloquist whose talent brought him world renown. Monsieur Vattemare used his fame and much of his fortune to promote a noble endeavor: the international exchange of books. He hoped in this way to forge the "intellectual union of nations."

On May 5, 1840, he presented his international exchange proposal to the New York State Senate. Four years later, the Legislature passed an "act authorizing the library trustees to 'transmit to the French government, and to such other foreign governments as may have made donations to the state, in books or works of art, a duplicate copy of the Session Laws and Legislative Documents of this State.'" In response to this Legislative initiative, the State Library -- which had been exchanging session laws and documents with neighboring Massachusetts since 1840 -- began broader and more formal exchanges with other states and countries. Through these exchanges, the State Library rapidly developed and increased its collections. It also gained an international reputation and much good will, which were to prove invaluable in the aftermath of the great fire that nearly destroyed the Library in 1911.

These are some of the generous gifts the State Library received through the zealous efforts of Monsieur Vattemare, who became its European agent: from the King of the Netherlands, a major work on Japan; from Pope Gregory XVI, elegant copper plate engravings of master paintings; from Prussia, the works of Frederick the Great; and from Austria, splendid works on botany and oriental literature.

Among the most coveted gifts the State Library sent to foreign libraries were the reports of the State's Natural History Survey and E.B. O'Callaghan's Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York State. Dr. O'Callaghan, an Albany physician and historian of New Netherland, compiled his monumental work largely from colonial manuscripts transferred to the State Library from the Office of the Secretary of State.

In addition to these colonial documents, the State Library acquired other important manuscript and book collections relating to New York State and the history of the Americas. These acquisitions, coupled with a broad directive from the Board of Regents, did much to determine the State Library's policy of comprehensive collecting in New York State and local history, as did the appointment, successively, of three library directors who were themselves historians.

Of the manuscript acquisitions, the most important were the papers of Sir William Johnson in 1850 and those of George Clinton in 1853. The former was New York's most brilliant royal governor; the latter, its first State governor. With the publication of scholarly editions of the State Library's Clinton and Johnson papers -- completed, respectively, in 1914 and 1926 -- New York State and its Library made an immense contribution to the historiography of the State. Two manuscript treasures in the State Library that are smaller in size but of vast significance are the first drafts of Washington's Farewell Address and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Another major acquisition, added to the State Library's holdings in 1845, was the 2,185-volume collection of David Bailie Warden, an expatriate American diplomat and author; its descriptive catalog is entitled Biblioteca Americana: Being a Choice Collection of Books Relating to North and South America and the West-Indies. Two years later, the Board of Regents urged the State Library to "accumulate, as far as possible, every work of interest or value relating to the United States." Among the State Library's most popular and important holdings at this time were its four elephant folios of Audubon's Birds of America.

There were also important and positive changes in the Library's statutory and internal governance. In 1844, the State Legislature shifted the trusteeship of the State Library to the Board of Regents. By this stroke, the Legislature insulated the State Library from political pressure -- raising both the caliber and the commitment of its directors -- and recognized the Library's importance as an educational institution. Thus, the New York State Library is today part of the State Education Department.

Under Alfred B. Street (1847-1862), Henry A. Homes (1862-1887) and George R. Howell (1887-1888), the State Library was led by men of admirable intellect, character and competence. Literate and learned men of letters, they exemplified an honored Victorian tradition: the library director as book man, bibliophile and antiquarian. In that regard, Howell was the compiler, with Jonathan Tenney, of the indispensable Bicentennial History of Albany and Schenectady Counties published by Munsell in 1886.

With the arrival of Melvil Dewey in 1888, the State Library entered the modern age. The inventor of the Dewey decimal system of classification -- a system still in use at the State Library -- Dewey has been called the "Edison of Library Science." A man of singular eccentricity and vision, Dewey started the first library school (which he moved to the State Library from Columbia College), the first state library services for the blind, the first traveling library (a forerunner of interlibrary loan) and organized the first State library association. He envisioned the State Library as a "People's University," and under his leadership the State Library introduced innovative reference services and exponentially increased the circulation of its collections. When Dewey left the State Library in 1905, it had become -- in the scientific organization of its holdings, the professionalism of its staff and the high level and range of its services -- a model library.

While in Albany, Dewey lived in a large house at 315 Madison Ave and often took his staff and students, who may have had little choice in the matter, on bicycle rides. A believer in outdoor exercise, Dewey considered the bicycle the "librarian's horse." He was also an enthusiastic and practicing proponent of simplified spelling. When President Barnard of Columbia failed, in the face of strong faculty resistance, to save Dewey's library school, Dewey wrote that Barnard "'gave it up as impossibl, and ill with mortification sent for his fisician.'"

In 1996 the State Library's Talking Book and Braille Library -- which circulates, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, audio-cassettes, records and braille materials to 36,000 upstate New Yorkers -- celebrated its 100th birthday. Its century of service is a lasting tribute to Dewey's proactive and progressive vision.

Under Dewey, the State Library also significantly increased its holdings in law and medicine. Today the State Library serves as the State Law Library and the State Medical Library. As such, it lends its holdings directly to members of the New York State Bar and licensed physicians resident in New York State.

The Cultural Education Center is the State Library's fifth residence in Albany. In 1855, when its collection had grown to 43,634 volumes, the Library moved to a modest building adjacent to the original Capitol; in 1883 to the present Capitol; in 1912, to the State Education Building on Washington Ave., and finally, in 1978, to the Cultural Education Center.

On March 29, 1911 the State Library was almost totally destroyed by a fire that swept through the State Capitol. Franklin D. Roosevelt was then a member of the State Senate, and one of the first to see the reading room ablaze was his dear friend, the legislative correspondent Louis M. Howe. In the fire, the State Library lost 400,000 books, 270,000 manuscripts and 1,000,000 catalog cards. Nearly a century's worth of gifts and acquisitions had turned to ashes.

Thanks to a munificent Legislative appropriation ($1,250,000), the generosity of libraries throughout the world and heartening public support, the State Library was able to rebuild its collections and become again a great research library.

Yet, before the fire, as Cecil Roseberry noted, "the average man-in-the-street...had a tendency to think of the State Library as a 'room on the third floor of the Capitol.'" It was this tragic event that awakened many of the Library's neighbors to the cultural treasure in their midst. Similarly, today, many readers of Capital Neighbors may think of the State Library as simply "the room on the seventh floor of the Cultural Education Center," forgetting, for the moment, what an invaluable resource it is for Albany.

As a matter of fact, in 1978, this modern new reading room, with its minimalist interior and eight-foot high ceiling, was something of a culture shock to local residents who had used the Library's collections in the State Education Building. Gone were the 94-foot high, Guastavino-domed ceiling, the graceful Keck chandelier, the soft allegorical murals by Will Low -- depicting "Aspiration," "Veritas," "Painting" -- the "skylights of painted glass," and the Rotunda laid out in the "cruciform design of a cathedral." Gone, too, was the card catalog, whose drawers had lined the walls of the Rotunda. (It had been filmed and replaced by 1,720 microfiche that could fit in a shoebox.) The new catalog was online -- a primitive and glowing avatar of emerging digital and virtual worlds.

With its move to the Cultural Education Center (CEC), the State Library had, for the first time, a facility specifically designed for a modern electronic research library. The CEC is air-conditioned, secure, accessible to the handicapped, wired, and commodious. According to George Webb of the State Education Department, it is the largest building owned and operated by the State of New York. With 1.3 million square feet of usable space, it is actually larger than the Corning Tower. The State Library occupies six levels of the CEC, and its 19 million items rest on 77 miles of shelving. Consolidated within the CEC are the three main divisions of the State Library: the Research Library, the Division of Library Development and the Talking Book and Braille Library.

Twenty-five years ago, State Library had none of these modern advances in information technology and telecommunications: online catalogs, commercial databases, CD-ROMs, electronic publications, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the Internet. In the Cultural Education Center, it offers public access to all of them.

In a climate of fiscal austerity, the State Library has tried to maintain the excellence of its manuscript and research collections, to support scholarly research and publications, and to preserve rare materials.

Two manuscript collections with an Albany focus acquired in recent years are the records of the Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood Association and the Parsons Child and Family Center (formerly the Albany Orphan Asylum). Judith Dulberger makes extensive use of the latter collection in "Mother Donit fore the Best" -- her recently published book on the Albany Orphan Asylum.

The State Library's local history and genealogy collections are among the most heavily used. Any capital resident seeking to document the life of an individual or the history of a family, a neighborhood, a business, an organization, a house, or even an antique or artifact -- will find them indispensable.

They include genealogies and biographical works; state and local histories; church and cemetery records; census records; city directories; local newspapers; probate indexes; abstracts of wills, and passenger lists.

The State Library also has an extensive collection of 18th and 19th century Albany imprints. Among these are many sermons and works printed by Joel Munsell, the Albany printer, historian and genealogist.

Through the New Netherland Project and the Research Residency Program, the State Library continues to support scholarly research and publications. Formed in 1974, under the sponsorship of the State Library and the Holland Society of New York City, the New Netherland Project is a Dutch translation program whose task is the translation, editing and publication of the records of the 17th century New Netherland Colony. It also sponsors an annual Rensselaerswijck Seminar, which focuses on various topics relating to the history of New Netherland and colonial New York.

In addition to papers from the Rensselaerswijck Seminar, the Project also publishes an English language newsletter De Nieu Nederlandse Marcurius and presents the annual Hendricks Manuscript Award for the best published or unpublished manuscript focusing on any aspect of the Dutch colonial experience in America. Since its inception, the Project has received many awards. In 1994, Dr. Charles T. Gehring, its director and translator, was made an officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix. Located in the State Library, the Project has an active friends group. For more information, call the Project at (518)474-6067.

In 1986, the State Library established a Research Residency Program to recognize and encourage individual research and to promote the use of its collections in scholarly research. In selecting its Research Residents, the State Library gives special consideration to those who submit proposals that will either use significant resources of the State Library or improve access to these holdings. For more information, contact Linda Braun at (518)474-2274.

The State Library has an outstanding collection of New York State newspapers from the 18th century to the present. Of particular interest to capital residents are its extensive holdings of Albany newspapers -- these include major daily and weekly newspapers, as well as special interest, alternative and ethnic publications. The State Library is also the statewide coordinator of the New York State Newspaper Project, which locates State newspapers and preserves them on microfilm. The Project also has an active friends group. For more information, call the Project at (518)474-7491.

The State Library is a regional depository for materials published or issued by the Foundation Center in New York City. The foundation collection contains lists and descriptions of foundations, individual grants and grant sources, private and governmental. Especially useful are the IRS returns (990 forms) of New York State foundations. Recently the Library added FC Search, a new CD-ROM product distributed by the Foundation Center. These materials are a valuable resource for local non-profit, cultural and community organizations.

In recent years, the State Library has strengthened its collections in business, economics and trade. Thus, local businesses will find many helpful resources at the State Library. Among them are STAT-USA, the National Trade and Data Bank (NTDB), commercial databases and CD-ROMs -- e.g., Disclosure, Business Dateline and American Business Disk. The Library is a full depository for U.S. Patents and trademarks, and its collection of standards is the most comprehensive in the region. Of special interest to local companies is the Library's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software which displays data geospatially. The State Library has recently begun a program of direct interlibrary loan for the business community.

Recently, Joseph Shubert, who guided the State Library during its years in the Cultural Education Center, retired after 19 years of service as State Librarian. To many, Mr. Shubert has been the Dewey of his era. In an interview with Paul Grondahl of the Times Union, Mr. Shubert observed: "Even as technology is changing, it's important not to lose sight that a library holds a special place in the community."

For its capital neighbors -- writers, scholars, architects, lawyers, doctors, students, genealogists, artists, inventors, retired persons, business owners, community groups -- the New York State Library continues to be an invaluable and accessible resource.

The State Library's excellence -- its ability to maintain and introduce quality collections and services -- depends more than ever on the informed knowledge and support of the people and the government its serves.

And so, the New York State Library really is more than a black line on a neighborhood map. Why not visit the Library? Or consider becoming part of The Committee for the New York State Library -- a friends group that includes many capital residents.

About Capitol Neighbors

Capital Neighbors is a quarterly newspaper for and about the people who live and work in Albany's historic downtown neighborhoods. Produced entirely by volunteers (except for printing) it is a joint publication of the Pastures, Mansion, Center Square, Hudson/Park and Washington Park Neighborhood Associations of Albany, NY.

Capital Neighbors celebrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of the five neighborhoods, as well as the historic architecture, broad range of cultural and entertainment opportunities, lively mix of nightlife and diverse economy that make the area truly unique.

Capital Neighbors is available free of charge to all neighborhood residents and can be obtained at numerous commercial and public venues in the city.

Last Updated: September 21, 2021