New York Public Library

Secrets of the New York Public Library

If you think of libraries as boring, dusty affairs, you’re not thinking of New York’s most famous library, a place with more than a few hidden treasures behind its doors

Strolling up the grand steps of the New York Public Library’s Main Branch on bustling Fifth Avenue is a quintessential New York experience. The noble lion statues, Patience and Fortitude, and the massive Roman-style columns provide a dramatic entrance into the palatial lobby that millions of visitors have experienced since the doors opened in 1911. Most take a quick look around or poke their heads into the stunning Rose Main Reading Room before making their way back down the steps. But dig a little deeper, and you realize that there’s a lot more to this magnificent public treasure — secrets that will amaze and surprise even the most well-read bibliophile. From a spectacular open-to-the-public map room to hidden stacks of books under Bryant Park, we’ve compiled a long list of little-known gems that will give visitors a whole new perspective on this must-see New York City attraction.

Before housing a library, the site was home a potter’s field and a reservoir
From 1823 to 1840, before it became one of the most popular public buildings in the city, the land that the Main Branch sits on, as well as adjacent Bryant Park, served as a graveyard for the poor, known as a potter’s field. In 1842 a working reservoir for the city’s drinking water, part of the engineering feat the Croton Aqueduct, opened in the space along with a park, Reservoir Square, which held an exhibition space and a 315-foot-tall observatory (both burned down in fires in the late 1850s). Some of the stones from the reservoir were used for the building’s cornerstone.

As this monument to knowledge was intended to be on par with the grand libraries of Europe, its site of was chosen for its central, prominent position in New York’s geography. Before building could begin, more than 500 workers spent two years dismantling the reservoir and preparing the land for the new structure. Construction on Carrère and Hastings’s Beaux-Arts, marble-clad beauty began in 1902 and was opened with much fanfare and a visit from President William Howard Taft on May 23, 1911. The architects behind the main branch of NYPL are also known for their work on other New York landmarks including the Frick mansion (now a museum) and Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza just up Fifth Avenue.

Some of its rich research holdings are thanks to Washington Irving
The story of how NYPL’s main branch became the one of the most important research libraries in the world for literature, art and history is a long one that continues today. When the library opened in 1911, it didn’t start with a brand new collection. The tomes of the Astor and Lenox libraries formed the base on which the library would build its famous holdings, which today span 15 million items from novels to ancient Japanese scrolls. Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was one of the original library advocates who played a big part in choosing books that formed the collection when he served as the first president of the Astor Library from 1849 to 1859. Years later on opening day, the initial book requested, Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, was not found in the catalog. Two days later a staff member donated a copy of the book. Too bad they didn’t ask for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The library’s underground storage snakes beneath Bryant Park
The next time you relax at Bryant Park, think about this: Directly beneath you, just six feet below, lies 40 miles of library stacks shelving 1.5 million books and 500,000 reels of microfilm. Opened in 1991 this massive storage project cost $24 million, including a 120-foot tunnel that connects it to the main library. But that’s just part of the library’s underground storage. Lying underneath the Main Branch is an original storage space comprising seven tiers of underground shelving made of Carnegie steel. If laid out end-to-end the space would stretch to more than 80 miles! With its collections continuing to grow, the library has recently outgrown its underground storage and has moved over three million items to an off-site storage facility in Princeton, N.J. A to-be-completed second level will bring the total number of books shelved to 3.2 million.

Despite Britain’s annoyance, the library has the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls
The stuffed animals that belonged to the son of the Winnie-the-Pooh author, A.A. Milne, and served as the inspiration for the beloved children’s books were originally on view in an out-of-the-way floor in the now closed Donnell Branch of NYPL. Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga now live at the Children’s Center at 42nd Street for all to visit for free, where they’ve been since 2008. Pooh and friends travelled a lot before they settled into their Main Branch home. Between 1947 and 1998, they toured the United States, made multiple trips back to England, and were caught up in an international incident when a British parliamentarian fought to have them returned to England. Note that the stuffed animals are in the library’s The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter exhibition until March 23, 2014.

The elegant, impressive Map Room is open to the public
Down the marbled hallways of the first floor’s north end lies the impressive wood-paneled Map Room (Room 117), officially called the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. Here map lovers will find one of the most impressive collections in the world with more than 433,000 sheet maps and 20,000 books and atlases dating from the 15th century to today. Unlike the other rooms in the Main Branch that house the library’s special collections, anyone can visit the Map Room and browse the open shelf reference collection. If you want to continue exploring the library’s amazing map collection, there’s an online digital map gallery as well as the NYPL Map Warper, a tool that allows you to digitally align historical maps from the collection to compare today’s city cityscape to the streets of the past.

Exhibits are free and often just as impressive as that of the big museums
With such a diverse collection of treasures buried deep inside the building, the NYPL has the advantage of being able to dip into its resources when it wants to show them off. But unlike The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim, NYPL won’t charge you $20 to see these gems. Exhibitions here are always free, and since they are a bit more under-the-radar, they can be less crowded some of the city’s other big blockbuster museum events. Recent programs include “Lunch Hour NYC,” which explored 150 years of the city’s historic lunch spots, an exhibit that looked at memorable Charles Dickens characters and how they inspired other artists and a showing of rare Japanese manuscripts. You still might encounter some crowds for showstoppers like the three-day exhibition of the Declaration of Independence and an original Bill of Rights, which drew 20,000 visitors.

Things heat up after dark
The main branch has a long history of hosting free events and after-hours celebrations. In 2011, to celebrate the building’s 100th anniversary, the Main Branch opened its doors to more than 500 contestants for an all-night scavenger hunt. That night, teams of eight wielded smart phones and laptops and searched the building for treasures of the library including Jack Kerouac’s glasses, a copy of the Declaration of Independence handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener made from his dead cat’s amputated arm. For its 40th anniversary, librarians dressed up in period costumes from the early 1900s and performed theatrical revues depicting the history of the library. The night concluded with dancing in the grand main lobby. Keep on the lookout for other “after hours” events at NYPL, including private events such as the springtime Manhattan Cocktail Classic Gala party which costs a pretty penny, but allows you to drink in the hallowed halls of NYPL.

Lions of many names
New York’s favorite lions, Patience and Fortitude, were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox for NYPL’s philanthropic founders, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Later the two male lions (as their manes make obvious) were called Lord Astor and Lady Lenox. Then along came New York’s feistiest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who gave the two felines the nicknames of Patience and Fortitude, evoking traits he believed New Yorkers needed to forge through the Great Depression. The names stuck. As for their origin, the lounging lions were designed by American sculptor Edward Clark Potter, whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Rotunda Reading Room of the Library of Congress, and on the streets and plazas in Paris, Chicago and Boston. The duo was carved by the famed Italian-born marble sculptors, the Piccirilli Brothers, who immigrated to the Bronx with their family in 1888. You may have seen at least one of their many works before — Abraham Lincoln seated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Some of the rarest gems are hidden off the hallways
When you walk through the grand hallways of the library, it’s hard not to peer into one of the small wood-paneled rooms. Many of these intimate spaces house the NYPL’s special collections. The label on the window will give you an idea of what lies behind the door. You need an appointment to enter and peruse the collections, but if you keep a sharp eye out you might just see a Gutenberg Bible, the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, or Walt Whitman’s personal copy of the first edition of his own book, Leaves of Grass, on your way by. These are just a few of the historic items held at the Main Branch.

Get a taste of what restaurant life was like in the 1850s
In recent years with the explosion of foodie culture across New York, a younger generation of researchers has newly discovered the impressive historical menu collection in the archives of NYPL. The library holds more 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present where menus from hotels, restaurants and groups holding gourmet luncheons and dinners are preserved forever. You can help make these menus available online, or just peruse them, via the transcription project, by which menus are digitized and transcribed by staff and volunteers so that anyone can search the 1914 menu at the Hotel Astor or find out what dishes were served for lunch in the 1850s. Broiled mutton chops, fried goose livers, or calf’s head with vinaigrette sauce anyone?

It’s not just books, movies come alive here too
It’s hard to forget Bill Murray’s first encounter with a spook in the movie Ghostbusters when his wacky crew is called after a librarian stumbles across a ghost in the basement. But many other famous screen scenes have taken place here. There’s the big wedding scene between Mr. Big & Carrie in the 2008 film Sex & the City, and in the 1978 classic The Wiz with Michael Jackson, one of the guarding lions springs to life to accompany the characters on their journey. As well, the apocalyptic cult flick Escape from New York includes a memorable scene when Snake is dropped off at the Main Branch by Ernest Borgnine.

Some truly great writers have written some truly great works in its reading room
The public Rose Main Reading Room is breathtaking. Almost two city blocks long with a brilliant mural of blue skies and puffy clouds framing the 50-foot high ceiling, the room could not be more dramatic. A 40,000-volume reference collection lines its walls, and light floods in from the large-paned UV-filtering windows above.  This incredible space has been inspirational for many New Yorkers both famous and not, who have spent time reading, researching and reflecting at the room’s 42 oak tables, which can hold 636 readers. It even inspired E.B. White to write a poem entitled, “The Great Reading Room.” Other literary greats like Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E. L. Doctorow, Henry Miller and Alfred Kazin have cited the Rose Reading Room as a key resource for their work, and many remembrances are collected in the anthology Reading Rooms from 1991. If you want to snap a souvenir, the North Hall is the quiet room where photography is permitted.

Just what did Stephen A. Schwarzman do to get his name engraved in the Beaux-Arts landmark?
Look up when you enter the library and you’ll see the name “Stephen A. Schwarzman” in towering letters engraved in stone. Is this some famous political figure from the annals of NYC history or devoted librarian who dedicated his life to the NYPL? Nope, it’s Stephen A. Schwarzman, library trustee and multi-millionaire Wall Street tycoon. In 2008 he donated $100 million to kick off a $1 billion initiative to transform the library into a 21st-century book-borrowing branch. As a reward for getting the campaign off the ground, NYPL renamed the branch after him and carved his name on the entrances to the Beaux-Arts landmark.

The future is hazy but bright for the storied library
With great fanfare, NYPL recently released grandiose plans for a complete overhaul to the Main Branch building, and starchitect Norman Foster, chairman and founder of Foster + Partners, was hired to redesign the branch into the 21st century. Plans call for the system’s circulating library to be brought into the building, which will include expanding the children’s area and adding a teen center. Although some welcome the direction, not everyone is excited about the plans to remove some of the research stacks to make it happen, and some opponents have filed a lawsuit to stop the demolition of the stacks. It’s still playing out, but the new space is currently scheduled to open in 2018 … of course, as we know in New York, sometimes things take a little longer than planned.

Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York