A public library is the most enduring of memorials: the trustiest monument of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.
Mark Twain, 1894
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, today a system of 37 libraries and bookmobile service that serves the public across the City of Buffalo and Erie County in Western New York, has a long and distinguished history in American libraries. Its development and growth has echoed the fortunes, decline and recent resurgence of its city and region. Its story has been blessed by the supreme generosity of donors and progressive leadership that introduced innovations to library science and public services. But above all, this resilient institution, Buffalo’s first cultural organization, continues to be valued and heavily used by area residents, its vast resources – always available for free – essential for personal growth, educational and business aspirations and leisure diversion.
Buffalo was in the early stages of its meteoric rise from a tiny village to an industrial powerhouse as the western terminus of the Erie Canal and gateway to the western frontier when its civic leaders created the Young Men’s Association (YMA) in 1836. This marked the beginning of continuous public library service in Western New York, as the YMA’s primary activity was to acquire books of permanent or lasting value for its members, who paid a membership fee to borrow the books. The YMA quickly became a cultural center for the burgeoning city, its rapidly growing collections requiring several moves among successively larger rented spaces. Between 1847 and 1853, the YMA expanded its community enrichment ambitions by forming committees on natural sciences, local history and the fine arts to address those interests and build educational collections of artifacts. Women were admitted as YMA members in 1857. The YMA eventually purchased its first real home, St. James Hall, in 1865. The building spanned a full block at Main and Eagle Streets (where M&T Bank’s headquarters is now located) and allowed for several compatible tenants (including Buffalo’s Law Library and Medical Society) for revenue purposes, as well as a large hall for performances and programs. Thousands of people waited for hours here to pay their last respects to President Abraham Lincoln as his funeral train passed through Buffalo in 1865. Hundreds of lectures and programs took place here featuring authors, scientists and personalities of the day.
Merchant and financier Seth Grosvenor left $40,000 to the City of Buffalo at his death in 1857 for the creation of a non-circulating public reference library that would be open to everyone. The Grosvenor Library began operating in 1871, and over time established a host of noteworthy collections, including patent information, military and legal documents, medical reference, music and rare books.
Outgrowing its space once again, the YMA commissioned the design and construction of a new library building on Lafayette Square, at the previous site of Buffalo’s first Courthouse. Architect Cyrus Eidlitz won the commission and created a magnificent Richardsonian-inspired structure that opened in 1887. This building signaled a milestone for the city as the first building constructed specifically for the community’s cultural, educational and literary interests. Renamed as The Buffalo Library, this structure, which served thousands of Buffalonians until its replacement in 1963, housed not only the library’s collections and services but also offered display spaces for art, local history and natural science artifacts for the fledgling Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (now Albright-Knox Art Gallery), Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society (now The Buffalo History Museum) and the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (now Buffalo Museum of Science) – a truly collaborative cultural center. The Library and its three sister organizations would co-exist there for nearly two decades, until the ongoing struggle for sufficient collection space would encourage these new institutions to relocate to their own new homes in the early years of the 20th century.
One of the recurring themes in the Library’s history is financial difficulties. The YMA’s first financial crisis in 1837 coincided with a national depression, requiring cutbacks in expenses, acquisitions, open hours and the eventual initiation of several fundraising projects. Library leadership thereafter developed an entrepreneurial stance to bring in operating revenue, leasing out extra space at St. James Hall and later developing the Hotel Iroquois, operated by others, one of downtown’s most famous hotels. The never-ending pressure for funds led to a destiny-changing contractual agreement with the City of Buffalo in 1897: In exchange for sufficient funds to support its varied operations, the YMA was retired and the Buffalo Public Library was born as a free circulating and reference library open to the public.
The “turn of the century” period for the rechristened Library was one of unrelenting growth and progressive activity under the innovative leadership of Josephus Larned (1836-1913). A critical leader in the creation of the new building at Lafayette Square (which was half-funded by direct appeal to the public) and the City agreement for a municipally funded library, he reorganized the cataloguing and business practices of the Library; offered free memberships to Buffalo teachers and children, thereby creating strong and lasting linkages with schools; encouraged creation of the first room dedicated to children in an American library; and made the Buffalo Public Library the first outside institution to adopt the brand-new Dewey Decimal Classification System. A friend of writer Mark Twain, he was instrumental in the author’s donation of the priceless Adventures of Huckleberry Finn manuscript to the Library. Library holdings by 1897 had increased to 84,000 volumes; by 1898, the 2,700 members of the YMA had exploded to 32,000 registered borrowers within one year of the new building’s opening.
Demand for services continued unabated through the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1915, the first seven branch libraries were established. The need for trained librarians encouraged establishment of the School of Library Science at the University at Buffalo in partnership with the Buffalo Public and Grosvenor Libraries in 1920. The Grosvenor Library in 1944 became one of the first American libraries to have a designated Rare Book Collection. During the World War II years, pressures on the Library were higher than ever as nearly half the staff left for military service or work in the war industries; remaining staff took on double or triple duty to keep up with substantially increased service demand, and returning servicemen taking advantage of the GI Bill to return to school depended on the Library. The Library trailblazed the use of the new medium of radio to bring Library resources to the public and pioneered providing outreach services to schools, community centers, prisons and underserved rural communities.
In 1947, yet a third library, the Erie County Public Library, was created to provide bookmobile service to rural towns and villages, outreach service to the confined and centralized support services ― e.g., book ordering, cataloging, materials processing and consulting ― for the County’s independent, autonomous community libraries.
As the second half of the 20th century began, the City of Buffalo again experienced financial difficulties. The County of Erie remained on relatively sound financial footing and expressed a willingness to undertake new responsibilities. In an effort to protect the two City libraries and provide improved library services for the entire region, the three library institutions were merged by New York State special legislation in 1953 after a decade of negotiation. The merger created one federated organization: the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library System (B&ECPL). Ownership of the Buffalo Public and the Grosvenor Library buildings and their respective book collections was transferred to Erie County.
In 1963, the Eidlitz-designed Library was demolished in favor of the current “state of the art urban library,” which houses the merged collections of the Grosvenor, Erie County and Buffalo Public Libraries and centralized support functions for the Library System. The Central Library was completed in 1964 and officially dedicated on October 18th of that year.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Erie County’s economy remained strong. In addition to the development of System-wide services and community outreach programs, a total of 25 library buildings were constructed in Buffalo and the surrounding towns, reaching a high of 52 libraries across the County. In 1976, however, the financial troubles experienced by the City spread to the County, and there was a need to retrench. County revenue shortfalls resulted in library service and personnel cuts, although small restorations occurred the following year and a portion of the furloughed staff was recalled. Since then, as the County’s industrial base has continued to shrink, the B&ECPL Board and administration have struggled to sustain needed services, maintain adequate material budgets and provide appropriate staffing levels.
In 1992, the B&ECPL asserted its independence under New York State Law in a court case that secured administrative and financial authority previously compromised by officials of Erie County government. In that same year, the Library Protection Act was adopted, a renewable local law that dedicated a portion of Erie County’s real property tax for Library purposes and guaranteed that funds appropriated by the Legislature could not be re-appropriated to cover mid-year shortfalls elsewhere in the Erie County budget. In 2007 by unanimous vote, the Legislature made the Library Protection Act a permanent local law, ending 14 years of temporary renewals.
From the early 1990s to the present, automated functions and electronic resources have become popular staples. In 1998, the Library established its presence on the Internet with its website www.BuffaloLib.org, a robust gateway to the online public access catalog that includes more than three million items as well as an exciting range of subscription databases and other valuable user services.
Also in 1998, planning consultants confirmed that the B&ECPL maintained more library buildings per capita than any other community in North America, arguably more than it needed to serve a population of fewer than one million people and certainly more than it could reasonably afford over the long term. The recommendation to consolidate buildings and construct new state-of-the-art facilities on a leaner, more cost-effective frame met with nearly universal resistance when trustees and administrative staff delivered the proposal in a series of 22 public meetings across Erie County. A new strategic plan, Expanding Horizons, did not abandon the consultants’ recommendations but indicated that the Library would pursue consolidations only in communities whose residents agreed to support the concept.
However, cuts were coming. Most of 2005 was devoted to an exhaustive and objective evaluation of the System to identify those libraries that had the greatest capacity to deliver the most in services and resources to the largest number of Erie County residents. After weeks of data collection and analysis and subsequent meetings with elected officials and the public, the B&ECPL Board adopted a plan that, based on available funding, would support only 36 of the former 52 libraries. Because some of the libraries that were to remain open would not receive enough financial support to meet New York State standards, they would need to raise supplemental revenues independently.
All told, Erie County’s fiscal crisis cost the Library System one-fourth of its annual support. That loss forced the closing of 15 libraries; reduced hours of service at almost every remaining location; cost more than 225 full- and part-time Library employees their jobs; took bookmobiles off the road for the first time since 1947 and decreased book, subscription and media purchases to a trickle.
In the aftermath, 2006 was devoted to stabilizing, fundraising and advocacy. Many local communities came to their libraries’ aid to offset the reduction in financial support from Erie County. The B&ECPL established an internal development operation to raise funds from multiple sources, improve the Library’s visibility and coordinate advocacy efforts. Thanks to persistent and persuasive communication and the urging of many stakeholders, the County Legislature approved a $500,000 increase in the Library’s 2007 operating appropriation, allowing some libraries that had failed to meet State standards to meet them and improving hours and services at other locations. Also in 2006, the Library System celebrated the promise of the future when the 20,000 square-foot Frank E. Merriweather, Jr. Library opened ― the first new library constructed in the City of Buffalo since 1986! This handsome facility, reflecting an African village motif, is a neighborhood staple that tripled the circulation of the library it replaced
Given the "funding roller coaster" the Library has been on since 2000, including in 2010 when budget cuts forced a reduction in service hours (98.5 total per week), plus cuts in programming and staffing, the Library System Trustees voted to pursue becoming a Special Legislative District Public Library (SLDPL) in September 2011. In April 2014, the Library System Board of Trustees determined the Library would end the process of becoming a Library District. At the time, Library Board Chairman Jack Connors said, “We realized the timing (for the LDI) was not right when the Erie County Legislature passed a resolution indicating it would not provide a “home-rule” message demonstrating support. The funds expended and the work completed from this project is very important to us and can be used in the future should conditions change.”
The mission of the Library has stayed the same and is as vital today as it was in the past: Connecting our diverse community with library resources that enrich, enlighten and entertain. Much has changed over the course of the years, particularly in technology, which now plays a major role in how the Library delivers information, materials and training programs. All System libraries provide free WiFi access to the Internet and free computer stations for public use. Training is regularly offered on computer use, software training, online career searches, resume writing and social media, to name a few.
The Library System’s website www.BuffaloLib.org offers an easily navigable gateway to many of the Library’s resources including the complete catalog of materials available for borrowing, downloadable music and videos, research databases, subject guides, Common Core and STEM information, homework help, senior service guides, program and event calendars, computer training tutorials and media releases. The website was accessed more than 9.2 million times in 2019.
Recent projects have expanded our offerings to the public. In 2015, Central Library opened the Launch Pad, the first MakerSpace dedicated to learning, discovering and creating through new technology and traditional materials. Offering 3D printers, a professional-level recording studio with green screen, 3D books, laser cutters and film conversion equipment, the Launch Pad presents a wide variety of technology-based classes and demos along with music listening sessions, knitting classes, printmaking and more.
In Fall 2015, a newly renovated fourth-floor space was transformed as the Collections Gallery, designed to display major rare book exhibits including “Milestones of Science: Books that Shook the World!,” (2015 – 2017) featuring more than 30 first editions from the history of science. In commemoration of the centennial of World War I, a second major exhibition “Buffalo Never Fails: The Queen City in World War I” (2017 – 2020) presented collection items and the stories of Buffalonians serving at home and abroad.
Also in 2016, a state of the art “Library on Wheels” Bookmobile began service to areas and communities across the county without access to a physical library.
The City’s first-ever Reading Park is the latest addition to the downtown Central Library. A highly visible but unused space at the Library’s front entrance was transformed and opened in the summer of 2019 thanks to a national placemaking grant from Southwest Airlines. Working in cooperation with Project for Public Spaces, Erie County, City of Buffalo, Buffalo Place, Just Buffalo Literary Center and other partners, the Library manages the Buffalo Park as an outdoor extension of Library programming and an urban oasis open to everyone.
More recently in mid-March 2020, a worldwide pandemic caused by the Coronavirus shuttered all Buffalo & Erie County Public Libraries (as well as New York State and many other states and countries in the world) for more than ten weeks. For the first time in the history of our library system, essentially all traditional in-library visits, borrowing and programs were halted for fear of transferring the virus. To continue serving the community, staff produced virtual online storytimes, craft making, genealogy classes and health and wellness discussions for 24/7 access through the library’s website and social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
We are proud of our long legacy of providing a variety of services and programs for families, children, teens, adults and seniors focusing on available information and resources about literacy, community, culture, health and wellbeing to meet the ever-changing needs of Erie County’s residents. The 37 libraries – including the downtown Central Library, 8 City of Buffalo branches and 22 contracting member libraries that operate 28 facilities – reach the County’s 919,866 residents (2013 estimated census figure) by being innovative centers of information, education, culture and entertainment. Today, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System has more than 3.2 million materials available for borrowing by over 370,000 library cardholders including books, eBooks, DVDs, music and more. In 2019, more than 6.6 million items were borrowed and there were 2.8 million library visits system wide. The public took advantage of 520,413 public computer sessions and 598,284 individual WiFi sessions. The Library today has more than 1,100 community partners that help connect with a number of underserved area populations including the homeless, veterans, newly arrived refugees and community centers. More than 282,000 people attended free programs in our libraries during 2019.
With dedicated trustees, conscientious and talented staff and many residents who value everything that libraries contribute to the vitality of the community, the possibilities are limitless for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Libraries.
We truly appreciate the support of the community, library cardholders, donors, partner organizations, businesses, government officials, volunteers as well as the media. We promise to continue to work hard to serve your needs.
For more information, call 716-858-8900. Follow the Library on social media including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr. The Library has a free podcast, All Booked Up! on books, movies and pop culture.