What Happened to the Engineering Societies Library?

By Donald Christiansen

There was a time when members of the IEEE could walk into a beautiful library in Manhattan, where they could find any technical book or journal they sought. Today, time and technology have voided that option.

Once considered to be the major library of engineering publications worldwide, the Engineering Societies Library (ESL) had its origins in 1906, when three engineering societies (the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Institute of Mining Engineers) moved their headquarters into the just-constructed 15-story United Engineering Society (UES) building in New York City. The UES had been created in 1904 by an act of the New York State Legislature with the directive to “advance the engineering arts and sciences in all their branches and to maintain a free public engineering library.”

Andrew Carnegie, a major funder of the building, at the laying of the cornerstone in May 1906, optimistically remarked that “here engineers can consult with one another and cultivate friendships. They can form a brotherhood, which will be a great benefit to all.”

The offices of the individual societies were located on the fifth through eleventh floors. The library reading room was on the thirteenth floor, and the library stacks on the twelfth. By early 1907, the libraries of the three Founder Societies were installed in the stack area and their staff and reference materials in the reading room.

By 1917, the American Society of Civil Engineers had moved into the new headquarters and brought with it a significant addition to the library holdings. Soon, the overcrowded library and stacks impeded their efficient use.

By 1928, talk of a new, larger building was underway, and by 1961 the modern twenty-story building across First Avenue from the United Nations headquarters had been completed, with twice the size of the older headquarters. Its new library was allocated 27,500 square feet, which would easily accommodate the 180,000 volumes that were transferred from the old headquarters. In 1958, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) had been added as the fifth and final Founder Society. The library holdings were further enhanced through a merger of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) with AIEE in 1963 to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).



As the types and volume of services required by users of the library changed with time and technology, both income and expenses became problematic. Nearly half of the library’s income came from an allocation of member dues, made at the discretion of the United Engineering Trustee (UET) Board. But by the early 1970s, this annual allotment was only 60 cents per member, so that the library needed to seek other sources of income. In 1975, the per-member assessment was increased by 5 cents, with no further increases for the next 14 years.

Although the founding societies donated their publications to the library, large increases in subscription prices for periodicals of certain other engineering societies and trade publishers caused the ESL to reluctantly drop some titles.

A consultant in 1990 noted that the library had failed to develop a plan to build the user base or to define functions to be automated. The general manager of the UET agreed, adding that “the individual societies have lost sight of the original intent, treating the ESL, in many cases, as an “adversary’ rather than an “offspring’ . . . They want a top-notch facility but do not want to make any contributions . . . The deterioration of the ESL was brought on by the Founder Societies, the very same entities that originated the ESL . . . they then did nothing constructive to reverse the trend but added fuel to the fire through their negative actions and reactions.”

In June 1991, positions of 14 ESL staff members were eliminated, including five with 23 to 30 years of service. A newly appointed ESL Planning Committee met for the first time in 1993, with the mission to devise a plan “to reduce the activities of the library to the minimum required by the UET charter.” Its chair, after meeting with the executive directors of the constituent engineering societies, reported that “with the exception of AIME, the Founder Societies are handling their current publications and archiving independently of ESL. There is little support for increasing, or even maintaining, their current support for the library. It is clear that the executive directors have only limited knowledge regarding material in the library.”

Call for Help

In April 1993, the UE Trustees agreed that access to the ESL collection needed improvement, and the best way to accomplish it would be to merge the collection with that of a strong technical library that would also add the ESL holdings to its online catalog. At year’s end, the UET president reported: “After a valiant effort to resurrect the Library from the sad, obsolete state into which our benign neglect had deposited it, the Trustees bit the bullet, shrank its operations to a non-deficit size, and more aggressively sought a modern library with whom ESL could beneficially merge, thereby making its distinguished holdings better available to our members and the public at large.”

Merger Sought

Requests for merger proposals were issued to several libraries, and responses were received from the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Dibner Library, and the Linda Hall Library.


It was agreed to transfer the bulk of the ESL holdings to the Linda Hall Library (LHL). Located in Kansas City, Missouri, it was founded in 1946 and had already acquired the holdings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, plus portions of the Franklin Institute’s library. The estimated size of the ESL holdings at the time of transfer was 360,000 volumes, with strengths in science and engineering serials, monographs, conference proceedings, technical reports, and engineering standards.

In 1995, the Linda Hall Library moved the ESL holdings at no cost to the Founder Societies. It would catalog the materials in a computer-based database and provide international access to the database. It would also provide reference and document delivery services from the collection. Copies of publications from the five Founder Societies would continue to be deposited at LHL, an arrangement that was designed to benefit each society and its members “by assuring access to the retrospective publications of the society, as well as to its current materials.” A rare book collection was included in the ESL transfer to LHL. The first one sought by an LHL patron was a rare text, published in 1606, by Jean Riolan, a seventeenth-century chemical philosopher.

Part of the AIEE portion of the ESL holdings was a special collection of early (pre-1900) electricity and magnetism publications. Called the Wheeler Gift Collection, it was given to AIEE with the provision that it remain in New York City, available for use by the general public. The 6000-item collection was of interest to the New York Public Library, where it was added to its distinguished rare book collection. ESL also provided a special part of its holdings to the Library of Congress. It consists largely of flatware (large maps, plans and blueprints, and photographs).

The Linda Hall Library lived up to its promised care and promotion of the ESL acquisition, and provided ready accessibility to it.

The plan was to retain a Linda Hall East/Engineering Societies Information Center at the New York headquarters of the Engineering Societies, with a reading room and online access to the Linda Hall catalog. But by 1997, the Engineering Societies had chosen to sell the headquarters building to Donald Trump, who demolished it and replaced it with a 70-story hotel/condominium complex. The societies returned to their 19th-century independence, with IEEE moving its headquarters to New Jersey. The ASCE headquarters are now in Virginia, and the AIME headquarters are in Colorado. ASME and AIChE remained headquartered in New York City, but at separate locations.

The Rise of Digital Libraries

IEEE’s linkage to the Linda Hall Library weakened, and recognizing the value of its publications via online access, beginning in 2007, IEEE ceased providing some of them to Linda Hall, and by 2010 no longer provided any. IEEE now offers online access via IEEE Xplore.

The Association for Iron and Steel Technology (AIST), a constituent society of the AIME, also ceased providing its journals to LHL. While the ASME, ASCE, and AIChE continue to send copies of their publications to LHL, they too have established digital libraries of their own. Meanwhile, hands-on reading rooms at society headquarters have pretty much become history. Full disclosure: During my years as an IEEE staff director I spent many enjoyable (and productive) hours in the reading room of the Engineering Societies Library.

Digital libraries can be cooperative or competitive (or both), depending on their charters and, sometimes, their incumbent managements. An outlier is Sci-Hub, an online search engine founded in 2011 to enable access to academic papers and articles without the “publisher paywalls” inherent in existing digital libraries. It has been described by many science and engineering organizations, including IEEE, as illegal, and ultimately disabling to the encouragement and publication of the work of engineers and researchers. Yet it is praised by many of its users since it requires no subscription or payment to access articles, while typical digital libraries may charge $30 per paper.


The Engineering Societies Library has been saved. Its holdings acquired over its nearly 100 years of existence are readily accessible, principally through the Linda Hall Library and in part through the New York Public Library.

The means and cost of accessing the more recent publications of its now independent offspring are in a state of flux, still subject to improvement and refinement.


Note: The photographs are representative of just a few of the many periodicals that are among the ESL holdings of the Linda Hall Library.

  • “Plans for Carnegie home for engineers,” The New York Times, Apr. 24, 1904.
  • “Carnegie building plans,” The New York Times, May 14, 1905.
  • Tornow, W. H., “The Engineering Societies Library: A History of Its Origins and Early Development, 1852-1928.” Graduate Library School of Long Island University, 1967.
  • Mount, E., Ahead of Its Time: The Engineering Societies Library, 1913-80, Linnet Books, 1982.
  • “Turmoil Accompanies Downsizing of Engineering Societies Library, ” Corporate Library, Update 2(2): 1, 1993.
  • Final Proposal to Join the Collections and Services of the Engineering Societies Library with those of the Linda Hall Library, Linda Hall Library, 1994.
  • Fishel, J., “The Relocation of the Engineering Societies Library Collection,” Sci-Tech News, Vol. 49, Issue 2, 1995.
  • Bradley, B., “A library of first resort for science, engineering, and technology: The Linda Hall Library,” Proc. of the IATUL Conferences, 1995.
  • Cohen, A., “ESL: Engineering Societies Library: End of a Special Library,” Science & Technology Libraries, The Hayworth Press, 2000.
  • Sci-Hub retrieved 20 March 2017
  • Pretz, K., “Sci-Hub’s “Free” Articles Are Anything but Free,” The Institute, Sep. 14, 2016.
  • Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology, 5109 Cherry Street, Kansas City, MO 64110
  • Christiansen, D., “Books, Books, Books,” Today’s Engineer, May 2014.

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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