The best-known big cats this side of the Serengetti sit quietly at the entrance of the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, one of the most important and impressive libraries in the world. The two majestic marble lions—nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to inspire residents during the Depression—are New York City icons as recognizable as the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge. Located at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue the imposing Beaux-Arts structure with its grand Corinthian columns and three immense entrance archways began as a sketch on the back of an old postcard. The library’s first director John Shaw Billings laid out the floor plan on the scrap piece of paper in 1897.
The two-block site chosen for the upcoming library was the Croton Reservoir, a popular strolling place. Five years later the reservoir had been dismantled and the cornerstone was set into place. President Howard Taft presided over the dedication ceremony of the $9-million structure on May 23, 1911. More than one million books lined 75 miles of shelves, and the next morning, when the library officially opened, between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors came to see the great marble library for themselves. For nearly 100 years curiosity has remained constant, drawing tourists and researchers alike to “ooh” and “ahh” at the museum-like physical presence of the library and the 15 million items in its collection.
Those items include Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, Columbus’s letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella announcing his infamous “discovery,” Virginia Woolf’s diaries, ancient Japanese scrolls and priceless medieval manuscripts.
Of course, one can’t just walk in and check out Jefferson’s Declaration. Unless part of a special exhibition, such items would not be on display to the public and a special access card would have to be acquired. In fact, unlike the many neighborhood libraries, the 42nd Street Humanities and Social Sciences Research Library is non-lending. In order to see a book, patrons use a computerized catalog, fill out a request slip and present it to a librarian. A Card of Admission is required to access Special Collections. Using an old-fashioned pneumatic system, the request is sent in, and, in about half an hour, the requested material is sent back up to the patron. A mere 30 minutes for processing is remarkable given that the library holds 88 miles of shelves on four levels and an additional 44 miles on two levels under the adjacent Bryant Park. And contrary to rumor, librarians insist those book finders don’t use roller skates.
But this library isn’t just about books. A work of art in itself, much time could be spent wandering its marble staircases admiring the shining chandeliers, intricately designed ceilings and moldings and colorful historic murals. Several galleries display changing exhibitions featuring the work of artists or collections of items spotlighting various people and events.
Though renowned and revered, the library prides itself on its democratic access to information. Those with library cards can sign up for 30-minute sessions of Internet use or borrow one of the many domestic and foreign magazines and newspapers to read in the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room.
To learn more, take a one-hour guided tour of the library at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The library is closed Sunday and Monday.
A semi-annual iPad magazine was introduced in 2011 to help New York Public Library patrons, and non-patrons, learn about some of the library’s hidden collections. Biblion: The Boundless Library is available at the iTunes store. The first issue focused on the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair.
In addition to serving as the roof over miles of shelves for the adjacent 42nd Street Library, Bryant Park is a popular mid-town lunching location for office workers. Originally known as Reservoir Square the park is named for lawyer turned poet and author William Cullen Bryant. The enormous New York Crystal Palace—built to house America’s first World’s Fair 1853–54—was located here until it burnt to the ground in 1857. Live jazz and comedy shows are held in the summer along with Monday evening outdoor film screenings. New York fashion shows occuped giant white tents in February and September for 16 years in Bryant Park before moving to Lincoln Center in 2010. The Bryant Park Grill and Bryant Park Café provide seasonal patio and rooftop dining. A heated tent is available during the colder months.