In the late nineteenth century, New York City had two reference libraries: the Astor Library, founded by a $400,000 bequest of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), which had opened in 1849, and the Lenox Library, founded by James Lenox (1800-1880), a book collector.
In 1886, Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886) made a bequest of about $2.4 million to establish a library in New York City.
John Bigelow (1817-1911), a New York attorney, was a trustee of the Tilden will, and formulated a plan to combine the resources of the financially-strapped Astor and Lenox libraries with the Tilden bequest to form "The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations". This entity came into being as a private foundation on May 23, 1895.
The library consolidated with The New York Free Circulating Library in February, 1901, and Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to construct branch libraries, with the proviso that the City of New York fund their maintenance and operations. The New York Public Library is thus a partnership of government with private philanthropy.
The main Research Library was built on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan between 40th and 42nd Streets, and was dedicated on May 23, 1911, opening on May 24, 1911. The famous lions guarding the entrance nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" were sculpted by Edward Clark Potter.