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The Cooper Union Archives & Special Collections

Records of the Cooper Union Library

by Mary Mann on 2024-04-24T10:13:00-04:00 in Archives, Cooper Union, History, Multidisciplinary/General, New York | 0 Comments

It's hard to imagine New York City without its network of public libraries, providing endless free supplies of knowledge and entertainment through local branches all over the city.

Peter Cooper had no such luxury to take for granted. His NYC had only subscription-based libraries, meaning you paid to belong to them, plus a few free reading rooms like that of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen that required a character reference from a “responsible person” for entry. Such libraries also generally had very limited hours. Because Cooper couldn't find an institution where - as a young man still making his way - he could go after work to fill up the great voids in his education, he would eventually create his own, and his "special delight” at The Cooper Union was its free library.

When it opened in 1859, The Cooper Union Library was open to people of all genders, ages, races, and religions, no fee or letter of recommendation required. It stocked books, newspapers, and magazines in dozens of languages, in order to best meet the needs of the immigrant-rich neighborhood. It also kept hours that made it accessible to working people - Monday through Saturday, 8:30am to 10:00pm, with Sunday hours added in 1872 in response to a patron petition.

The Cooper Union Library quickly became one of the most popular reading rooms in New York City. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly noted in 1894 that “an important element of this success is the feeling on the part of the populace that the institution is designed for their use, and that they are entirely welcome.”

While the Cooper Union Library supplied public services, Cooper's college programs developed their own collections: the Art Library was organized in 1861, and the Student's Reference Library - containing mostly scientific and technical materials - was formed as a special collection within the main (public) library in 1912. Meanwhile, a Museum Library was developed to complement the collections of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration (which was transferred to the Smithsonian in the 1960s and became the nucleus for the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum).

By 1938 it was determined that student needs had outpaced those of the public - the latter now being served by the city's network of public libraries - and all the various library services at Cooper were consolidated, with acquisitions determined by curriculum rather than the request of neighborhood patrons. But the Cooper Union Library continued to be open to the public until 1974, when the libraries - heretofore all located on different floors - were consolidated on the ground floor as part of a major building renovation.

All this history, and much more - acquisitions of slides and film; the advent of electronic catalogs and databases; patents and other government holdings; and, more broadly, the development of the "academic library" as an idea - can be found in the Records of the Cooper Union Library, a newly processed archival collection.


Interested in learning more? Search the Records of the Cooper Union Library finding aid. If you'd like to view particular materials in person, please reach out to us at

For more context on the history of public libraries, we recommend Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911, available in the Cooper Union Library.

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