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July 30, 2007

It's a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backwards

I have been tunneling through and around piles of papers and coils of microfilm these days, eking every spare moment of research time that I can get when not at work or sleeping (thank you, ambien) or staring at houses in neighborhoods that we cannot afford (re: anywhere in Brooklyn). It took me about a year of intensive digging, but I have finally begun to find things that are meaningful to my thesis. Now I need to learn how to write it all down like a story. I guess that comes in good time.

webster branch nylp
Images from the New York Public Library digital archives collection

I used to live down the street from a tiny little library on York Avenue. The building always called out to me in a strange way; there’s something in its simplicity that just felt special. I learned pretty early on that it was a Carnegie library, though I never thought much about it after that. For other more recent reasons, my interest in it resurfaced, and reading up on the history of the library has been quite a delight. There are a number of characters involved that all intertwine and I do love it when various strands of research merge.

The Webster Branch library opened in its current building, funded by money from Andrew Carnegie, in 1906. Prior to this, it had existed as the Webster Free Library since 1893, and operated out of a former home inside brownstone on 76th Street. Although there was a larger library nearby on 79th Street, the Webster Branch served an important purpose to its surrounding community. This area of the Upper East Side was home to a large population of first and second generation Czechoslovakian and Hungarian immigrants (even in the 60's and 70's the area was sometimes referred to as "Czech Broadway"), and the library quickly became a space for both socialization and Americanization. Their largest readership group were said to reside in the areas from 74th to 79th Streets, from First Avenue to the East River, and 79th Street through 84th Street, from First Avenue to the River. Many came to read up on news from their home countries. Others attended English classes or sent their children to use both the English and Czech book and music collections.

Two women were greatly important to the development of the Webster Branch-- the lead librarian, Zaidee Smith, and the curator of the Czechoslovakian collection, Lida Matulka. It appears that Smith began working at the library in 1906 when it first opened. A Canadian (or British- there are mixed records on this) immigrant, Smith lived around the corner for a large portion of her life. In 1927, the Czechoslovakian government awarded her with an Order of the White Lion in recognition for her public service to the Czech community. It is the highest order a foreigner can receive.

In the late 1910’s, the NYPL hired Lida Matulka as curator of the Czechoslovakian collection. Matulka spent over thirty years building the archive, which grew to include Czech music and a children's marionette stage and, as a New York Times article noted in 1956, was widely credited with "having brought together for the New York Public Library the largest collection of Czechslovak literary material this side of the Iron Curtain." It also became a sort of hub for artists, writers and thinkers, particularly in the late teens and early 1920's. Among those gathering there was the curator's husband, Jan Matulka, also a Czech immigrant and artist, and Jay Van Everen, a friend and fellow artist. You might recognize some of Everen's work from the NYC subway-- he designed several wall tiles. Matulka's best work is said to have been created in the 1920's-30's. He worked a lot in landscapes and was one of the first modernist artists to travel to the Southwest. Matulka also produced a series of striking works depicting the New York skyline. These were not the bulk of his work but they are my personal favorites.

There were no doubt other prominent writers, artists and thinkers that spent time in the Webster Branch library, though I have yet to uncover them all. It is evident that this small book repository held great significance to a lot of people, whether it was through the provision of reading materials and music in their native languages or a place for children to gather and learn. While this kind of service by a library is not rare- in fact, I would argue that this is one of the great purposes of local libraries- it is still quite wonderful to learn about such a rich history, all wrapped into a tiny little building on York Avenue.

Posted by callalillie at July 30, 2007 6:35 AM | History



This research project looks fascinating.
I just had the opportunity to spend a week at the NYPL as part of a teacher's seminar on doing research on neighborhoods. They showed us how to use the old Sanborn maps, census records, photo archives and all. We had an interesting speaker, Nelson Alexander Smith, who was writing a book about "dumbbell tenements" and was researching one particular building and the story of the residents there over its lifetime.

Hope things come together well for you.

Posted by: Marcia at July 30, 2007 8:12 PM

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