But the New York Public Library has since its founding been democratic in a more than simply numeric sense. In 1911, the first request to be filled was for Moral Ideas of Our Time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy, a book in Russian. The patron who requested it was David Shub, a 23-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant who lived at 1699 Washington Avenue, in the Bronx. The 1910 census entry for Shub’s apartment building shows that almost all of his neighbors were recent immigrants, with occupations from dressmaker to printer to laborer to clerk. Did they, too, go to the library? It’s possible. Shub, who himself worked a series of manual jobs, was part of that great movement of autodidacticism that swept the Western world in the late 19th and early 20th century, and which was responsible for the flourishing of institutions like the British Museum and the New York Public Library. Back then, ideas like democracy, a living wage, and an eight-hour day were still relatively new, and it seemed possible that the empowerment of the working class would lead to a new world of wide public research, in which every man and woman would be able to undertake a study of whatever interested them—just like the wealthy gentry of the past, who studied poetry, animal husbandry, or whatever else struck their fancy. This would be a productive use for one’s newly acquired leisure, otherwise known as the weekend and the late afternoon.
Shub, for his part, after more than forty years in the New York Public Library, where he met Trotsky and Bukharin, introduced many of his friends to the riches of the Slavic division, and wrote several small-circulation Yiddish texts, offered up the fruits of his research in the form of his one and only English-language book, Lenin: A Biography, which appeared in 1948.