Those who say that libraries are things of the past have never taken a trip to New York City. The 5 boroughs are home to a system of libraries that make it easy for anyone to read, study, and enjoy access to unlimited information.
In fact, there is no shortage of libraries in New York City. With a main location in Manhattan, the New York Public Library also has 87 branches open throughout Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens are served by their own libraries, the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library, respectively.
The New York Public Library (NYPL) saw its earliest days as two separate, private libraries – Astor Library (paid for by the estate of John Jacob Astor after his death in 1848) and Lenox Library (with collections donated by James Lenox), which were later merged. Organizers wanted a standout main branch, and they set aside a two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. The Main Branch officially opened in 1911, and today it stands as both a New York City and a National Historic Landmark. It was renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008, after businessman Stephen A. Schwarzman donated money to refurbish the location.
When I was growing up, I had two libraries to choose from on Long Island. I just never really went, unless I had a big project for school. The most library action I saw was in school. Nowadays, I have a library card and go fairly often to check out books. It seemed fitting that I add the NYPL to my bucket list. I had never been to the Main Branch before, and I had only seen a few pictures online of the famous Rose Main Reading Room.
Walking across 41st Street to get to the library, I noticed these random plaques in the sidewalk. “Library Walk” is set up to celebrate some of the great names in literature. I had to stop a few times to read the plaques, and I thought this was a really exciting and cool way to pave the way to the building.
The Schwarzman Building is a spectacle of architecture, and it fits the founders’ vision of an imposing main branch. It is built from Vermont marble and brick, with bronze flagpole bases. At the time of its opening, the NYPL was the largest marble structure built in the United States.
The Main Branch of the NYPL is actually a research library, which means you can’t actually check out any books. It took me two visits to get a good feel for just how much there is to see, and I was fortunate to be able to hop on one of the free daily tours. I recommend taking the tour of the NYPL, as I was able to see and learn way more with a guide than I was on my own.
The famous stone lions were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, in honor of the library’s founders. During the 1930s, Mayor La Guardia renamed them Patience and Fortitude, as he felt they were two qualities that New Yorkers would need to survive the Great Depression. This lion is Patience.
Our tour guide told us that the building’s designers wanted to incorporate as many animals as possible into the details of the structure. The lion is seen outside, on the library’s official logo, and in places like the water fountains. We learned on the tour that these fountains have been disconnected and don’t work anymore, as the pipes are originally made of lead.
Walking inside the library, you’re met by security. With three floors to go through, it can be tough to find where you need to go, but there is an information booth where you can ask for help. The lobby is just one example of how majestic this building is, and surrounding hallways and grand staircases have beautiful ceilings and chandeliers.
Another fun fact: these intricate ceilings are made from plaster, not wood.
Located on the first floor, the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room is home to newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals from around the world. It’s decorated with paintings of some of New York City’s landmark publishing buildings.
You can find periodicals from throughout the years (most are stored on computers at this point) from any country, making this an amazing resource. In fact, there are so many different resources available at the New York Public Library that I can't even cover them all here.
The NYPL is the second largest library in the country (first being the Library of Congress), and it includes thousands of amazing and extremely rare works. They have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the original transcript of the Declaration of Independence (handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, map on the back not included), and Whitman’s personal copies of Leaves of Grass.
The beauty of any building is in the details. Look anywhere in the NYPL, and you’ll find something stunning. This includes the McGraw Rotunda on the third floor, which features this ceiling mural.
As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration was formed, with a key project being the transformation of the Rotunda. Edward Laning created four panels that follow the story of recorded word. One of these panels is “Moses with the Tablets of Law.”
If you’ve ever looked up the NYPL online, you’ve likely seen a photo of The Rose Main Reading Room. It was also in Ghostbusters and other movies.
The Rose Main Reading Room is home to thousands of reference works, and can be used for reading and research. This room is unique in that is it located on the third floor, whereas most libraries feature reading rooms closer to the main entrance. Designers chose this space, as they knew this placement would allow for natural lighting and quiet.
Libraries are amazing resources, and the NYPL also hosts a number of events and special exhibits. Currently open at the Main Branch is “You Say You Want a Revolution,” a look back at the culture of the 60s and 70s.
This is a really cool exhibit, with a look back at the growth of the counter culture, LGBT, women's rights, and peace movements.
There are pieces of culture on display, including part of the typescript of Easy Rider, as well as the early manuscript of On the Road.
The exhibit looks back at anti-war protests, and it’s easy to see the influence they have had on the political climate today.
Visitors can also listen to some of the most popular music from the era.
"Revolution" is on display until September!
Visiting the New York Public Library was an eye-opening and exciting experience. The Schwarzman Building is a massive building, complete with high ceilings, grand staircases, fancy chandeliers, and formal paintings. It feels more like a museum than a library, which is a testament to the building’s designers – they definitely achieved their goal! The library free for anyone to use, and you can get a library card in just a few minutes. Whether you want to learn a new language, study the history of a small town, find a rare book, or just enjoy a calm and quiet day, I 100% recommend adding this amazing location to your New York Bucket List!
Interested in more bucket list adventures in New York City? Follow along on Instagram at @fiveboroughbucketlist!