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A Library for Children -- the Stone Avenue Branch

May 7, 2014 12:07 PM | 1 comment

The Stone Avenue Library Branch has stood at 581 Mother Gaston Boulevard for 100 years, and has recently celebrated that fact with a renovation and re-opening party. Of course, the street wasn't called Mother Gaston when the branch was built -- that came later, after local activist Rosetta "Mother" Gaston opened the Heritage House as an education and community center in this very library.  Another name change worth noting is that of the branch itself. Now known as the Stone Avenue Library, it first opened its doors in 1914 as the Brownsville Children's Library -- reportedly the first library in the world to cater specifically and exclusively to children.

Children wait patiently outside the Brownsville Children's Library, c. 1930

A recent New York Times article touched on the history of this branch, but we think it's worth delving into a bit more deeply. At the end of the 19th century the Brownsville neighborhood was changing rapidly. What had once been a pastoral suburbia was developing into a dense urban community as thousands of immigrants -- almost entirely Eastern European Jews -- moved to the area. Demand for library services was high, perhaps in part because of crowded and unsanitary conditions at the tenements that sprouted up to house this new population. Then, as now, the library provided a communal space outside the home and the opportunity for self-edification. The original Brownsville Branch opened in 1905, operating out of the Alliance Building at Pitkin Avenue and Watkins Street.  Its circulation doubled twice in its first two years of operation, driven from the start by enthusiastic demand for juvenile fiction. According to a 1908 annual report, republished in Margaret B. Freeman's 1940 thesis The Brownsville Children's Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library : its origin and development, fully two-thirds of the branch librarians' time and effort was spent on the children's collections. "The little readers are the most insistent and are very willing to wait a whole afternoon for the return of a book they want."

Crowded quarters in the Brownsville Branch children's room, 1909.

In that same year a Carnegie-built Brownsville Branch opened in its own space, but still the demands of local children taxed the branch's resources. A plot of land was purchased at Stone and Dumont Avenues (the latter now called Mother Gaston Boulevard) -- just six blocks from the standing Brownsville Branch -- for the purpose of easing some of the burden. Clara Whitehill Hunt, who served as Superintendent of Work with Children for the Brooklyn Public Library, proposed a novel idea for the space -- that new building be just for children.

Hunt included several design suggestions for the branch to serve the particular needs of its intended patrons. Practical suggestions included "1. We must get inside the building those long lines of children who have had to wait, out-of-doors, their turn at the loan and registration desks," and "5. Turnstiles are not needed, instead make the aisle beside the loan desk narrow. Children can be controlled better than grown-ups and turnstiles are dangerous with swarms of children." Indeed, Hunt thought of every last detail: "7. Woodwork should extend high enough so that dirty hands cannot reach the plaster." She was also adamant that the iron fence surrounding the library property have closely spaced bars, so that no curious heads could poke between the bars, only to find themselves stuck here. With these and many other specific recommendations folded into its architectural plan, the Brownsville Children's Library threw open its doors to welcome its target constitutency on September 24, 1914. 

Even with Hunt's design specifications in place, as you can see above, the queue inside the Brownsville Children's Library still snaked back upon itself multiple times and ran out the door down the block. In the annual reports from the branch's early years, much is made of what came to be known as "the line", which formed daily as librarians struggled to check in returned books fast enough to meet the demand of children checking out books. As Freeman details in her thesis, this line often extended down Dumont Street and past the entrance of a local butcher's shop, who complained loudly that the crowds of eager readers -- albeit orderly and well-behaved -- were ruining his business by blocking his doorway.


You can hardly begrudge the patrons their eagerness to get inside the building -- in addition to all the books they could want, for free, the children also had access to the large fireplace pictured above and meeting spaces for their various clubs and clans. Decorative elements were added to tickle a young one's fancy, including the fantastical scene depicted in the fireplace tile as well as rabbits heads carved into the arms of the reading benches. "The rabbits' ears," Freeman wrote in 1940, "laid flat along their necks, are now worn to a satiny smoothness by the affectionate pats of small hands." In these years before the mass availability of popular entertainments like movies and music, libraries were a primary bridge to the outer world, be it real or fictional. Moreover, many of these children were living in crowded tenements, so access to a nook of one's own was a precious thing. 

The Brownsville neighborhood changed as the 20th century wore on, losing much of its homogeneity as an Eastern European Jewish enclave when other populations moved in, including, over the years, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, and Arab-Americans. The branch saw a decline in its juvenile readership, which is explained in Freeman's survey by a rise in affluence among its original patron base, who could now afford to own their own copies of beloved titles.  In 1929 the branch extended its resources to teenagers, and it was in this location that the civic service group the Brownsville Boys Club held their planning meetings for several years.

Above, a 1953 Brownsville Boys Club meeting. In that same year, the club would open a recreation center just off of Mother Gaston Boulevard and Linden Boulevard.  The center still stands today as part of the Brownsville Playground.

After World War II the neighborhood saw even greater change.  Tenements were razed to make way for low income housing projects and the population was accordingly uprooted and resettled.  Today the branch is nestled among several housing projects -- the Van Dyke, Tilden, Brownsville, Howard and Seth Low Houses.  Juvenile readership declined with these neighborhood changes, and the need for a no-adults-allowed library branch was found to be less pressing.  Renamed the Stone Avenue Library and broadened again to serve patrons of all ages, it has continued to serve the Brownsville neighborhood alongside its predecessor branch just six blocks away.   

 Above and below, children's programs at the Stone Avenue Branch in the 1970s.



5/13/2014 5:38:32 PM #

Happy birthday to the library. My Aunt Ruth McEvoy was a librarian in Brooklyn in the 50s, though I'm not sure in what branch she worked. I have pictures from her old photo albums that show the fireplace and a meeting much like the Boys Club meeting shown with the article. I sent the originals of her library-related pictures to the Brooklyn Public Library in 2006 or 2007.

Ellen McEvoy