I have many favorite places to visit when I’m in New York. There are lots of great places for shopping, eating and drinking, and just wandering around. One of my very favorite places, however, is a quiet oasis in the otherwise frenzied pace that is Manhattan — the New York Public Library.
I’d seen the library in movies long before I saw it in person. It was featured in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Escape From New York, and the library’s basement was the location of a ghost sighting in Ghostbusters. If a movie is set in New York, watch carefully, and you may catch a glimpse of the famous stone lions which guard the library.
The NYPL has both a circulating public library and a huge research (non-lending) library, making it one of the largest libraries in each category. It is a private, non-profit corporation (not a governmental entity), although it does rely on both private and public financing for its continued existence and growth. The NYPL systems consists of 86 libraries in all. This includes the four main lending libraries, four specialized research libraries. a library for the blind, and 77 branch libraries, not only in Manhattan, but also in the Bronx and Staten Island
The NYPL was founded by the 1886 estate of Samuel J. Tilden, who left money to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” Although there were two other libraries open in New York at that time, both were experiencing serious financial hardships. The trustee of Tilden’s estate saw the perfect opportunity to fulfill that vision, and the libraries were combined, forming what became the New York Public Library. A number of years later, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated money to construct branch libraries which would be maintained by the City.
You’ll find the central library on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Street. It has expanded since its inception, primarily in an underground expansion on the Bryant Park side. The library is a Beaux-Arts design, flanked on either side of the main entrance by two stone lions guarding the premises. Although the lions have been through a couple of name changes, since the 1930’s they have been known as “Patience” (on the south side) and “Fortitude” (on the north side). I love the lions!
The beautiful main reading room of the Research Library is often seen in photographs (at right), but in person, it is truly spectacular. It is long, with large windows and high ceilings (52 feet), and is lined with thousands of books along both the floor and balcony level. In this room you can read at the study tables, or in the comfortable chairs, from the non-circulating book collections. Or, do what I did. Just go sit in the room and soak up the history and ambience of the magnificent room, its architecture, and history.
You do not need a library card to visit the library, or for onsite use. If you wish to check out material, or use the extensive online resources, you will need a library card. Library cards are free for anyone who lives, works, pays property taxes, or attends school in New York State. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, you are subject to a $100 per year library card fee. The libraries are free to all researchers, even though they may not fit into one of the above residency categories. All that’s needed in an ACCESS Card, which can be obtained from a librarian. The ACCESS Card will allow you to use anything from the library’s collection on-site.
One of the very cool features of the library is its telephone reference system. Staffed with expert researchers, the they are required to answer each telephone inquiry in less than five minutes. That question that you’ve been noodling around for weeks will be answered by a researches in less than five minutes. They’ll get you the specific answer, or refer you to a place to get the answer (website, trade group, specialty library, etc.). That’s impressive! The reference system operates Monday - Saturday, 9 am - 6 pm (Eastern Time), and can be reached at (212) 340-0849. It handles questions from people around the world, but will not answer crossword or contest questions, offer philosophical speculation, or do your homework!
The library is located at 455 Fifth Avenue (at 40th Street). Hours are Monday - Wednesday, 9 am - 9 pm; Thursday - Saturday 10 am - 6 pm; closed Sunday. The library can also be rented out for private events and parties.
It’s worth stopping by, even if the library is closed, just to appreciate the architecture!
Photo credit: wikimedia