FDNY Library Shares History of Department
Repository of technical and historical literature occupies important place in New York fire protection efforts
—photo by Ed Heavey
IN 1868 the Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners adopted a resolution instructing Commissioner T. Bailey Myers to establish a library at fire headquarters in Mercer Street for the instruction and entertainment of the men of the department. A large room above the headquarters offices was fitted up and selection of more than 4000 suitable books was purchased. Many more were contributed by friends of the department, the library containing 5901 volumes when it was formally opened on December 20, 1870.
The books were uniformly covered, arranged and cataloged by C. DeF. Burns, assistant secretary, who acted as librarian. The ceremonies formally opening the library featured an address by Supreme Court Justice Daly with a carefully prepared talk—“The Origin and History of the Fire Department in New York.” The library, which was used as a reading room by the men of the department, was decorated with a variety of relics and mementos assembled largely from the houses of the recently disbanded volunteer companies.
In 1878 the commissioners divided the single library into 10 battalion libraries, and located these at Engine Companies 5, 12, 17, 18, 29 and 30; and Ladder Companies 2, 4, 14 and 17. Mr. Burns was appointed as general librarian and the lieutenants of the companies where the libraries were located were designated as battalion librarians. This division of the books was considered desirable because of the difficulty of traveling to Mercer Street in the days of the horse cars.
The battalion libraries were opened to readers on December 16, 1878, and shortly thereafter a catalog was printed for distribution through the department. The battalion libraries were not used to the extent expected and the books were eventually scattered among the companies, the senior lieutenants in the various houses being given the responsibility of maintaining the collections, and keeping the records. In 1911, Mrs. Russell (Margaret Olivia) Sage presented the Sage Memorial Library to the department. Her fine gift constituted specially made cabinets and 50 books for each company.
With the elimination of the continuous-duty system the circulating libraries lost a great deal of their appeal and company libraries were no longer maintained. The houses which were in existence in 1911 still have their Sage Memorial Library bookcases and more or less complete collections of the now obsolete books.
When the fire college was moved to Long Island City in 1932, space was set aside for use as a reading room, and the assembling of a reference library was started. With the removal of the college to the new fire department building on 35th Street in Long Island City in 1948, a room was assigned for the use of the library. During the succeeding years the library has been developed to its present size and importance as source of training and reference material, and repository of the historical records of the department. Over 10,000 volumes are now cataloged.