At the prompting of his close friend, Joseph Cogswell, John Jacob Astor set aside $400,000 for the creation of a free public library. When it opened in 1854 The Astor Free Library was one of the first public libraries in the United States. It was also one of the most progressive institutions on the planet.
If there was an Achilles heal it was that no books where available to be checked out.
On opening day there where 80,000 to 90,000 books on the shelves. By the end of 1895 there were 294,325.
"Jan. 9, 1854, Astor Library opened." Cartoon by Chip from the January 7, 1892, issue of the first Life magazine satirizing the opening day of the Astor Library
The library kept a registration book in which all visitors signed-in, indicating their name, their residence and the book they wished to call for. "For the first year the average daily use was about 100 volumes, with a total for the year of about 30,000. No one topic seemed to dominate the rest, though on the whole the fine arts collection was the most extensively used. The number of readers in the first year varied from 30 for the lowest day to 150 for the highest"
Astor Library Sign-in Sheet, Entry for 30 June and 2 July 1866
In 1895 the Astor Library was consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to form the foundation of the New York Public Library!
More images at NYPL
More on The Astor Library at the Greenwich Village Digital Archive which is maintained by students in New York University's graduate program in Archives and Public History.
Previously on In the Stacks:
Women's Travel Diaries at Duke University
Charles Darwin's Library
The National Archives
Private Libraries at the Museum of the City of New York
Los Angeles Public Library
Boston Public Library