Following in the footsteps of Walt Whitman: 185th anniversary of the Brooklyn Museum Library


A little known fact is that Walt Whitman was the acting librarian in 1835 of the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library which was the nucleus of the Brooklyn Museum. This year is the 185th anniversary of the founding of the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library and we are reflecting on Whitman in celebration of the anniversary. The Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library was founded in 1823 as the first free and circulating library in Brooklyn. The Library evolved into the Brooklyn Institute which eventually became the parent of the Brooklyn Museum as well as Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Spanning 185 years, the Apprentices’ Library has a rich history including the fact that Revolutionary War Hero General Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the library building on his tour of America in 1825. Years later, Walt Whitman recounted witnessing the laying of the cornerstone by General Lafayette. We’ve got a bit more information on Whitman and his association with this institution on our website.

Would Whitman recognize the library today? Maybe since several of the books in the original Library live on the shelves in the Brooklyn Museum Library. Whitman reported that there were 1,200 volumes in 1835 and today there are over 300,000 volumes ranging from antiquity to contemporary art. We now offer so much more including electronic records to what is in the research collections held in the Museum Libraries and Archives as well as specialized databases, and digital images which all serve to document the Museum’s encyclopedic art collection as well as the broader area of art and cultural history. There is a strong intellectual link between the research collection and the Museum’s object collection since the research tools document the object collections. Over the past 185 years the research collection has taken on the role of a storyteller revealing how and why an object was created and where it was before it came into the Museum collection. The research collection is constantly enriched by new purchases, exchanges with other museums and donations. Recent donations include the Wardwell Collection donated by the widow of scholar Allen Wardwell, a scrapbook on Feminist artists and many books on women artists.

Whitman probably did not foresee the challenges – both positive and negative – presented by the Internet. The positive side is the power of the web and the advantage of providing textual and visual information in a timely manner. The negative is the assumption that all these materials will soon be digitized and that we will no longer need the hard copy. Many of these materials have an intrinsic quality all of their own and are very often exhibited. There is active discussion between the two camps of book lovers and online devotees. We plan to discuss this challenge during this anniversary year to emphasize our belief that the library can live on alongside its digital partner. Our first anniversary talk will be a presentation on Walt Whitman and his association with the Apprentices’ Library on February 2nd and we will have books on display that were in the Library collection when Whitman was librarian. For more information send us an email!

Come visit and help us celebrate this special anniversary!