Hidden treasures

The New York Public Library is one of the biggest libraries in the world, with a vast branch system offering circulating materials to millions of people and a series of comprehensive research collections that scholars from around the world come to visit.

No building in the library system is as famous as the original main library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, opened in 1911, with its stone lions (named Patience and Fortitude) standing guard at the bottom of the steps of the Beaux-Arts style entrance. Now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, it houses only a fraction of the library’s extensive holdings, focusing on materials in the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Business, Science, Performing Arts, and Black Culture collections are located in other buildings around Manhattan.)

However, on a recent visit, I didn’t get an impression of this wealth of knowledge. As grand and beautiful as the art and architecture is in this building, there is not a lot to indicate what is housed within. This could be because it is a reference library, where patrons request materials from the catalogue, staff pull them from shelves in storage areas and deliver them to the reader. The items are not taken home, but read on site in one of the reading rooms. (I was not able to see the most famous one, the Rose Reading Room, because it was closed due to ceiling repairs.)

Possibly to make up for this lack of access, the library puts on rotating exhibits to show some of the treasures they have on hand. When I was there, a well-executed exhibit called “Why Children’s Books Matter” traced children’s books from 18th century educational readers to 21st century pop authors. And it’s just not books. The library also owns artifacts like the original Winnie the Pooh bear that inspired the well-loved books by A. A. Milne.

Later that evening, I saw a television interview with library president, Anthony Marx, who said he would like to open up the building to make it more accessible to the public. I am curious to see if he succeeds and if doing so will provide more of a library feel to the building.