April 2, 2013
Pratt Institute Library Lore
by Claire Kelley
The Pratt Institute Library—the first free library in Brooklyn—opened its doors 125 years ago. It was built by architect William B. Tubby in Victorian Renaissance revival style, with interiors by the Tiffany Decorating Company. One of the most important aspects of the library’s history is the inclusive vision of the founder of the university, Charles Pratt:
At a time when many libraries were private and for those of means only, Charles Pratt created one within his Institute to serve not only students of the Institute, but the general public as well, regardless of sex, racial, or ethnic heritage, or social and economic condition. On opening day, January 4th, 1888, the reading room had 150 periodicals, a collection of encyclopedias, and other general reference materials. In February, the Circulating Department opened with 10,000 volumes on the shelves and 200 in the hands of the catalogers. By July, 284 persons had registered as members of the Library, which was free to all citizens of Brooklyn over fourteen years of age.
Pictures of events at the Pratt Institute Library over the ages have been collected, and provide a glimpse into the former layout of the reading room or activities like painting with watercolors from a butterfly exhibit in the library museum. While the card catalog system evolved to an electronic system, the Tiffany-designed stacks, that allow library patrons to look through to see the floor below while browsing books on the shelf, have remained the same.
In 1940, the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza near Prospect Park opened, and the Pratt Institute Library was no longer open to the public. Marianne Moore remembers the Pratt Free Library in an essay that appeared in Vogue in the August 1, 1960 issue (Joan Didion is listed as a “Features Associate” in the masthead):
Pratt Institute Free Library, no longer open to the public, was for me on coming to Brooklyn a veritable alpine or desert rescue. The row of new accessions near the circulation desk went to one’s head, new books appearing almost simultaneously with the advertisements. In the stacks, related items in a subject often became more important than the particular quest. And sometimes one came on startling finds acquired from private library dispersals. By the stairs of polished oak, wide and easy, to the Periodical Room on the second floor, one found a room aired and kept with unclasping vigilance.
One notable twist in the history of the Pratt Library is that Debbie Does Dallas, a pornographic film, was shot there in the 1970s. The producers got permission from administrators, who believed that it was an educational movie. While the official stance from Pratt is that the school never approved the scenes that were filmed, the rumor on campus is that the Pratt administration was so excited that producers wanted to use the library in a film, they never asked what the movie was about.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.