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Iron & Glass

Public Libraries in Brooklyn: A Pratt Story

by Staff Pratt Institute Archives on 2023-05-09T12:02:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

Post submitted by: Erica Leslie Weidner, MSLIS '24 and Access Services Graduate Assistant.

Public libraries inspire a sense of awe and wonder in me. They are places we can go to read books and newspapers, to research, to borrow texts we desperately need for class. But public libraries haven’t been around forever, and in some cases, it’s been a real fight to establish a place where anyone and everyone can access information for free.

Imagine my surprise discovering that the first public library in Brooklyn wasn’t the Brooklyn Public Library, but instead a small library and reading room founded on Pratt’s campus. Predating Brooklyn’s public library system by several years, the Pratt Institute Free Library was the first of its kind in the borough and an integral part of Pratt’s history.

The Subscription Model

The typical library in the late 19th century was a subscription library that required members to pay a fee in exchange for access. For instance, an issue of Pratt Institute Monthly indicates that the Brooklyn Library, located in Crown Heights, charged patrons a fee of $5 per year—the equivalent of about $160 today. That made the library prohibitively expensive for most Brooklyn residents. In contrast to subscription libraries, public libraries are open to anyone and do not charge a fee to access materials. Instead, public libraries draw funding from public money—your tax dollars hard at work. 

At the time of Pratt’s founding in the late 1880s, the city of Brooklyn—and yes, it was considered its own city—did not have a public library to call its own. The Brooklyn Public Library that we know today wouldn’t be established until 1896. And even if Brooklynites were willing to make the trek to Manhattan, the New York Public Library was also in its infancy, its formal founding dating to 1895. The city was in dire need of a public library.

In the 1880s, Brooklyn was facing rapid growth and economic change due to industrialization. Rapid social and economic changes required education, and public libraries became necessary to foster literacy in the growing population. Thus, industrialization was one of the driving forces behind the growth of public libraries. Further, men like Andrew Carnegie and Charles Pratt, the founder of Pratt Institute, became immensely wealthy due to the growth of industry. Andrew Carnegie earned his money from steel and Charles Pratt from oil. With their money, men like Carnegie and Pratt were able to fund and build public libraries.

An illustration of Pratt Institute’s Main Building with a horse-drawn carriage out front and a smokestack rising in the background, circa 1887. Pratt Institute Archives.

Enter the Pratt Institute Free Library. Though not publicly funded—relying instead on the philanthropy of Charles Pratt—materials were publicly available. Philanthropic funding for public libraries wasn’t uncommon at the time; the wealthy considered libraries a worthy cause. For example, the New York Public Library traces its roots to three benefactors pooling their resources to build a public library. The Pratt Institute Free Library was thus the first public library in Brooklyn in that it was open to the public and did not require an annual fee.

From the Very Beginning

The Free Library was part of Pratt Institute from its inception. In fact, even before Charles Pratt officially opened the Institute’s doors in 1887, he promised to create a “free circulating library and reading room.” The Pratt Institute Free Library’s first mention in the press is in a February 1887 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

A clipping mentions Charles Pratt’s plan to establish a free library for the city of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Daily EagleFebruary 17th, 1887.


Though Pratt Institute started instructing students in October 1887, it wasn’t until January 1888 that the first branch of the Pratt Institute Free Library opened. The Library did not have its own building at the time but instead was housed on the first floor of the Main Building on Pratt’s campus. At the time of opening, the Pratt Institute Free Library had about 150 periodicals and 10,000 books on its shelves

The Pratt Free Library in the Main Building, photographed in 1890. From Pratt Institute Archives Photograph Collection

“By the first of July,” a feature in Pratt Institute Monthly reads, “3,284 persons had registered as members of the Library, which was then free to all citizens of Brooklyn over fourteen years of age.” At first, readers had to have a reading ticket to access the collection, but the Free Library quickly realized this was a barrier to access, and the age requirement was abolished in 1891.

The Pratt Free Library Branches Out

Pratt Institute established another branch of the Free Library in 1888, the Astral Branch, located on the ground floor of the Astral Apartments in Greenpoint. Charles Pratt owned the Astral Apartments, which still stand today, though the Library is long gone. A messenger carried books between the Main Branch and the Astral Branch on a weekly basis. A third branch, located on Atlantic Avenue, opened a few years later.

The Pratt Free Library located at the Astral Apartments in Greenpoint, circa 1900. Pratt Institute Archives Photograph Collection.

A bookmark of the Pratt Institute Free Library showing the circulation statistics from July 1891 to July 1892. PI- 002 Records of the Library.

In 1892, The Standard Union praised the Pratt Institute Free Library for “so constantly increasing and renewing its attractions.” Soon after, the Main Branch of the Library had outgrown its space in the Main Building. In 1896, the collection was permanently moved to a new home, one built specifically for it: the Library building we now know (and love).

The new (at the time) Pratt Library building, photographed in 1896 for Pratt Institute Monthly.

A Change Grows In Brooklyn

While the Pratt Institute Free Library was getting its branches up and running, the New York State Legislature was working on creating a public library in Brooklyn. In 1892, New York lawmakers passed an act formally founding the Brooklyn Public Library. The Brooklyn Public Library opened its first branch—the Bedford Library—on December 20, 1897. Though the original library no longer stands, the Bedford Library lives on today on Franklin Avenue, in an Andrew Carnegie-funded building, about one mile south of Pratt Institute.

The Bedford Library in its original building, photographed in 1899. From Brooklyn Public Library.

Pratt Institute’s time as Brooklyn’s sole provider of library services—free of charge—was coming to an end. Pratt closed its Atlantic Avenue branch in 1898, and it allowed the Astral Branch of the Library to be incorporated into the public library system in 1901. However, Pratt retained its main library for the local community.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But It Sure Can Build Libraries

Charles Pratt was able to found Pratt Institute—and its Free Library—due to his independent wealth. Brooklyn would have struggled to open its public library branches without a similarly wealthy benefactor. 

Luckily for the Brooklyn Public Library, Andrew Carnegie donated a massive amount of money for building library branches—$1.6 million, to be exact. (In today’s dollars, that’s about $56.8 million.) Carnegie’s funds built 21 Brooklyn Public Library branches. The first of these, Pacific Library, opened its doors in 1904; the final Carnegie library, Washington Irving Library, opened in 1923. Both branches are still operating today. 

The exterior of the first Carnegie Library in Brooklyn, Pacific Library. From Brooklyn Public Library.

That Saying About All Good Things

Brooklyn radically changed in the 50 years after Pratt established the Free Library in 1888. For one thing, it was no longer a city of its own but a borough of New York City. For another, it had boomed in population. The 1890 census reported that the population of Kings County was about 838,547. By the 1940 census, that had risen to a population of 2,698,285. 

The good news? Brooklyn had many more public libraries serving its 2.6 million residents. By 1940 Brooklyn Public Library had branches spread across the borough and was eagerly awaiting its Central Library, which opened a year later.

The Pratt Institute Free Library was still operating during the 1939–1940 school year. However, its time as a public library was about to end. Charles Pratt—not the founder Charles Pratt, but his grandson of the same name—announced its closure to the public in 1939:

A clipping announcing the closure of Pratt Institute Free Library after 52 years of service to the public. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 2nd, 1939.

Pratt cited the fact that, at the Free Library’s inception, Pratt Institute enrolled 14 students. In 1939, enrollment was up to 5,336. Pratt Institute needed a library all of its own, dedicated to academic pursuits. The fact that Brooklyn now had a public library of its own did not escape Charles Pratt’s attention either; the public library, he wrote, had “become a municipal responsibility.”

Students in Pratt Institute’s Library School were tasked with reorganizing the book collection “on the basis of an Institute library,” according to a 1940 issue of The Prattler. “This will involve the shifting of books and the adapting of the collection to meet the needs of the student body.” Without having to worry about the public’s needs, the library could become what it is today.

Where We Stand in 2023

Pratt Institute Libraries have primarily served the students of Pratt Institute since 1940. It’s come a long way since the initial 10,000 books. Split between two branches—the historic building at the Brooklyn campus and the 4th floor of the Manhattan campus—Pratt Institute Libraries houses 200,000 print items. Currently researchers not affiliated with Pratt Institute can still access the collections by reaching out to the reference desk and making an appointment. There have also been a variety of programs over the years from exhibitions and events to a Friends of the Library program whereby the libraries have sought to open their doors to the public.

Pratt’s Brooklyn campus library as it stands today—no longer a public library but always an invaluable resource to Pratt students. Photo taken by author, 2023.

As for Brooklyn, according to the 2020 census, its population is 2,736,074 people. What libraries exist to meet the needs of those 2.7 million Brooklyn residents today?

The Brooklyn Public Library is a massive system. With 61 library branches—which it claims are usually less than a half-mile walk from most Brooklyn residences—and a collection of 2.86 million physical items, it has more than taken the place of Pratt Institute Free Library. If you don’t have a Brooklyn Public Library card, you can sign up for one online. And seriously, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t have one.



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