Former New York Public Library President Vartan Gregorian Dies

Vartan Gregorian, president of the New York Public Library (NYPL) from 1981–89, died on April 15 at age 87. Gregorian took leadership of the library during the tail end of the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to the brink of bankruptcy and left NYPL facing a $50 million deficit, helping restore the library to solvency through substantial fundraising efforts and advocacy.

Vartan Gregorian at podium labeled with NYPL logo, elevation drawing of building on easel next to him
Vartan Gregorian at NYPL event.
Courtesy of NYPL

Vartan Gregorian, president of the New York Public Library (NYPL) from 1981–89, died on April 15 at age 87. Gregorian took leadership of the library during the tail end of the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to the brink of bankruptcy and left NYPL facing a $50 million deficit, helping restore the library to solvency through substantial fundraising efforts and advocacy.

During his time at NYPL, Gregorian nearly doubled the library’s budget, and raised $327 million in funds from private donors, foundations, and corporations. The library’s Main Branch (now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) underwent a $42 million restoration on his watch, and he was also able to secure approval from New York City planning authorities to restore Bryant Park, behind the building, as part of a below-ground stacks expansion project. By engaging New York notables like Brooke Astor, an honorary chair of NYPL’s board of trustees who donated nearly $25 million, “He made support of the library fashionable,” LJ wrote in 1988. In May 1999, a hall of the Main Branch was named after Gregorian.

“Through his efforts and leadership, the library was able to weather, recover, and rebound from a decade of fiscal crisis,” NYPL wrote in a statement, “restoring hours of service in the branches, renovating many historic locations, growing and strengthening circulating collections with a focus on multilingual and multicultural materials, increasing education and literacy programs, and investing in curators and expert staff in the research libraries, among other things.”

Gegorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, near the Russian border. He earned a PhD in history and humanities from Stanford University, teaching European and Middle Eastern history at the University of California–Berkeley, San Francisco State College, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin. He served as provost at the University of Pennsylvania from 1979–80.

While at the helm of NYPL, Gregorian taught history and Near Eastern studies at New York University and the New School for Social Research. He was an outspoken advocate for the humanities and liberal arts, and believed that libraries were a critical link to civic engagement.

“For four thousand years, humanity has gone through dreadful horrors, dreadful turmoils, varied glories,” Gregorian told the New Yorker for a 1986 profile. “How do we distill the past? How do we retain the memories? Libraries.”

Gregorian left NYPL to serve as president of Brown University from 1989–97, and in 1997 became president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Even after he moved on from library leadership, Gregorian’s philanthropic work at the Carnegie Corporation helped support many NYPL programs and services. He received numerous awards and honors, including the National Humanities Medal in 1998 and the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and dozens of honorary degrees.

“The Library’s work today would not be possible without his foresight and deep dedication to the people of New York,” NYPL stated. “His legacy will positively impact our city for generations to come, and the Library’s leadership cannot thank him enough.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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