Pratt Institute Archives Image Collection
This history is adapted from an article written by F. William Chickering, Dean of Libraries at Pratt Institute from 1989 to 2003.
On opening day, January 4, 1888, the reading room of the Pratt Library, referred to then as the Library Department, had 150 periodicals, a collection of encyclopedias, and other general reference materials. The Circulating Department opened a month later with 10,000 volumes on the shelves and 200 more in the hands of the catalogers. By July, 284 persons had registered as members of the Library, which was free to all citizens of Brooklyn over fourteen years of age. It was the first free public library in New York City.
The Library Department, originally located on the first floor of the Main Building, was popular and expanded rapidly. At a time when most libraries were private, Charles Pratt, founder of Pratt Institute, created a library to serve not only students of the Institute but the general public as well—regardless of sex, racial or ethnic heritage, and social and economic condition.
As the Institute grew and the public library system expanded, the need for Pratt to maintain an open library diminished. In 1941, the Library ceased to be open to the public.
Branches were opened in the Astral Apartments in Greenpoint (another Pratt philanthropic experiment) and the Long Island Branch on Atlantic Avenue. By 1896, the collection had grown to about 61,000 volumes and over 300,000 volumes circulated a year. Larger quarters became essential.
The New Pratt Library
The architect in charge of the new Pratt Library building that houses the collection today was Brooklyn native William Tubby, who also designed the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Charles Millard Pratt House, now a bishop’s residence. The elegant interior was done by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company and includes a magnificent marble and brass central staircase. The spacious entrance hall and corridors are paved in stone mosaic and the columns and pilasters are of Sienna marble, with yellow shafts and red pedestals. The original tints of the walls and ceilings were done in soft yellows, creams, buffs, terra-cottas, and yellow greens. The cost of the new building and its equipment, excluding the cost of books, was $190,000.
When the elegant new building opened in 1896, it served not only as a home for the Pratt Institute Free Library, as the Library Department had become, but it also housed a museum, and the School of Library Economy, the first incarnation of Pratt’s current School of Information and Library Science.
The freestanding, three-story red brick library building, located near Hall Street, has slightly projecting end pavilions and a two-story stacks wing at the western end. The base of the building is faced with brick simulating rustication at the first floor and set off by brownstone bandcourses. Round arched window openings, outlined by brick and brownstone moldings, accent the second story, while rectangular window openings are at the third floor. The building is surmounted by a modillioned cornice supporting a balustrated parapet.
Technology was an important part of library operations from the beginning. In early documentation, mention is made of the system of speaking tubes and house telephones throughout the building. Also of note were the electric book lift and the glass-stack flooring designed to admit light and to provide spacing for ventilation. The stacks also feature electroplated copper bookends on the shelves. The decorative skylight over the stairway is also noted for shedding both natural and electric light on the stairs.
A Museum and Gallery
At the time of the inauguration of the new building, there was also space on the third floor devoted to a museum and gallery. The south-facing center room on the third floor hosted a variety of science, arts, and crafts shows. Early photographs depict exhibitions of art glass, fine paintings of landscapes, and even an extensive exhibition of butterfly specimens. Eventually, the museum function was combined with a program at the Brooklyn Museum, and the exhibition function was transferred to other campus locations.
With the development of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Long Island Branch was closed on June 1, 1898, and the Astral Branch was transferred to the Brooklyn Public Library on September 15, 1901. In 1903, the previous system of paging books from closed stacks was abandoned in favor of open stacks. This reduced the need for pages, and facilitated the location of materials.
In terms of architecture, the Children’s Porch was added in 1912, providing a special entrance into the Children’s Room that allowed young readers direct access from Library Park. This amenity opened at Friday Evening Story Hour on November 8, 1912. The chiming tall-case clock remembered so fondly by many alumni was acquired by the Library in 1919. The North Porch, now an office, was designed in 1935 by John Mead Howells, also the architect of Memorial Hall, and was added in 1936.
With the closing of the museum in the library, the delegation of public library functions to Brooklyn Public Library in the 1940s, and the move of the School of Information and Library Science to larger quarters in 1973, the edifice was ripe for renovation, making the whole structure available for library purposes.
After a period of heavy use and uncontrolled expansion of collection, a careful analysis of the use of space led to a major renovation of the facility. The first alteration was the relocation of the Children’s Porch. A small arcaded porch, added in 1912 to provide access to the children’s room, was removed from the south side during the renovation in 1980 and has been relocated to near the ARC building.
A new subterranean wing, modern climate control, a sensitive refurbishing of the interior, and new furnishings were all part of the project. In 1986, a highly sophisticated online automated catalog and circulation system was installed. In 1989, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission officially designated the Library a New York City Landmark.