Opened on May 23, 1911 on the site of a former reservoir, this main branch of the New York Public Library is a true wonder of the city. Upon its completion, it was the largest marble structure in the United States, and the classical design elements ensure that it remains as breathtaking now as it was then. In 1965, it became a National Historic Landmark. The Main Reading Room is an enormous hall, with murals and intricate relief work lording overhead and large, open windows allowing for bright sunlight to pour across the books being huddled over. Small exhibitions to art and cultural histories pepper the halls. The entire structure is truly a pleasure to explore, one of the grandest and most wonderful buildings in the entire city, and we spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the halls in a book-drunk daze trying to absorb it all.
Helen Clay Frick, always an art enthusiast, founded the Frick Art Reference Gallery in 1920 as a public reserve and in loving memory of her father, Henry Clay Frick. Originally housed in the basement bowling alley of the Frick Collection, the library moved to its current location in 1935, transformed from its previously residential identity by Russell Pope. To date, the library offers access to comprehensive collections of photographs with complementing texts as well as other resources to better understand Western Art, adhering to the intentions of both Helen and Henry.
Visions provides services for the blind and visually impaired; it is located in Selis Manor, a twelve-story apartment building dedicated to housing and assisting blind and otherwise handicapped New Yorkers of all types. Visions holds braille courses, exercise and rehabilitation classes, music programs, and various events and lectures.
A psychological and cultural resource center combining a bookstore, libraries, training institutes, and continuing education, the C. G. Jung Center serves as a fulcrum for all things Jungian in midtown Manhattan. An air of learnedness wafts throughout the premises, awash in the smell of old books and older dreams. Carl Jung's wide-reaching areas of interest wind their ways through our unconscious, through dreams and myths and memories, and all are represented in the literature available here. The bookstore downstairs has readings on these and more from authors Jungian and otherwise, but the real treasure is the library on the fourth floor. We stopped in and chatted with Robin, a psychoanalyst-in-training who waxed historical on Jung's break with contemporary academics and with Freud, symbols, myths, and newer-age psychoanalytical practices. One of our writers, a once and future psychology student, spent quite a bit of time perusing the literary offerings, happily flipping through tomes from "The Presence of Siva, " to "Existential Psychotherapy" to "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" and "Psychopathia Sexualis. " The reading room is carpeted with a large, worn, oriental rug and furnished with colorful squishy seating. Chairs sit in a pleasantly haphazard arrangement around a wooden table, giving the impression that the ghosts of scholars remembered and forgotten were sitting in the room reading just before browsers arrived. Certainly, they have not strayed far from this house of learning.
“There is no other institution that celebrates the cultural richness of the Hispanic world like the Hispanic Society, ” said Public Relations Director Mencia Figueroa. The Society sprung from wealthy New Yorker Archer Huntington’s dream to “condense the soul of Spain into meanings through works of the hand and spirit. ” He meticulously documented his progress in his journals, which are preserved by the Society today. As a child, his family’s travels to the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris convinced Archer that “a museum is the grandest thing in the world. ” His journeys through Spain instilled in him an abiding love for Spanish culture. From then on, he began amassing a collection of books, newspapers, and magazine clippings, which he would display in wooden boxes that he used as makeshift galleries. Later visits to Mexico fueled both his passion for Hispanic art and his determination to share these great works with New York. Though skeptical of his son’s ambitions, Huntington Sr. — a railroad and shipyard tycoon — eventually supported Archer’s endower and gave him the money to buy land on 155th Street. This would allow Archer to open the Hispanic Society as a real museum and library that was accessible to the public. Archer then granted the remaining plots of land on the street to other museums, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Museum of the American Indian, the Heye Foundation, and the American Geographical Society.
Tompkins Square Park may be viewed from three stories of windows belonging to the library that shares its namesake. A branch of the New York Public Library, Tompkins Square has been in existence since 1904, serving the ever changing community that has lived in the East Village for over one hundred years. We were particularly taken by the children's room upstairs and the space down below that serves as an art gallery.
When the Donnell Library, known for its collection of non-English works, teen literature, and Winnie the Pooh Dolls, closed in 2008, the neighborhood mourned its passing. Luckily, in its place, 53rd Street has received an innovative, welcoming new public library run by some of the kindest, most helpful people I have encountered on the side streets. When I visited the library shortly after it had opened in the summer of 2016, it was Olympic season, and the large, central amphitheater with staircase seating was live-streaming the games. Not only were visitors encouraged to borrow headphones if they wished to listen to whatever was playing, but those sitting on the stairs were allowed to have food, a rare occurrence in a public library. When I spoke to Genoveve, the head librarian, she told me that she was working on getting a Criterion films license for the library so that they could offer showings from a diverse, high-quality archive of films. As it is, Kevin, a library employee, informed me that the screen is “never black. ” Kevin and Genoveve were joined by Lauren, who is in charge of children’s programming. The trio showed me into a community room with comforting orange, puffy walls, which I learned are very adaptable for various acoustics. The room can be broken up into two smaller spaces, separated by a wall that doubles as a dry erase board. The group then walked me around the main floor, where the bulk of the collection is kept. The 53rd Street team has made excellent use of the space that they have been given. Each nook and cranny either has a bookshelf or a place for people to sit. There are outlets galore and many places where people can comfortably work on a laptop. Genoveve jokingly called the back laptop bar the “cocktail area” because of its sleek design. The library was built with modern technology in mind, but Genoveve assured me that there is a good balance of physical books to electronic materials, since, after all, “People still really love their books. ” I was curious if certain age groups prefer electronic sources to actual books, but I learned that there is an even mix of people who use both – including my three hosts, who described when they like to read stories on e-readers vs. when they like to turn pages. Though the space is very technical and Genoveve hopes to host coding events, International Games Day, and tech meet-ups in the future, the library is known as much for the arts as for its technological resources. “Film, Arts, and Music” is how Genoveve described the library’s programming focus. While it is a no-brainer to feature arts events, since the library is across the street from the MoMA (and has already begun collaborating with the museum), 53rd Street also reaches out to other sources in the arts. For instance, in September, the library hosted an event in honor of Roald Dahl during which the cast of Matilda on Broadway showed up for a photo opportunity. Genoveve and Kevin let me know that they are also planning on inviting opera companies, one-man/woman shows, and chamber music ensembles to perform at the library. I was curious to know who the library’s regular attendees are, considering that the building is located in the middle of midtown. Genoveve shared that there were a lot of residential locals: “I didn’t know there were so many families that lived in the neighborhood! ” she exclaimed. In addition to locals, the library attracts commuters, tourists, and even other librarians. “We’ve become a popular place for the internal department, ” she said, smiling. The crowning jewel of the library is the children’s room, which is cleverly tucked below the bleachers facing the giant screen. I was delighted when Lauren pointed out that the rug that covers the room is a cubic rendering of the island of Manhattan. The rug was provided by TEN, the architect that designed the whole library. Lauren is pleased with how much TEN listened to the librarians when designing the children’s room, especially when it comes to the sink in the corner. She explained that having a sink makes it much easier to plan activities and crafts with the children, citing a recent shaving cream project as an example. There are children’s programs everyday, as well as teen events in the space just outside the kid’s room. “We have a really robust story-time schedule, ” Lauren said proudly. No matter what room we entered, I was blown away by the friendly greetings and bright, cheery smiles that I received from the staff. When I mentioned this to Genoveve, she nodded and admitted, “We have received a lot of compliments about the team being friendly. ” She went on to say that when she was approached about being head librarian, she immediately started hiring the “cream of the crop. ” It also helped, Kevin added, that the staff “worked together for a month before the library even opened. ” Lauren chimed in: “Librarians exist because we’re there to help people. Our natural inclination, whether we’re friendly or shy, is to help. ” Genoveve nodded and told me that she wants everyone who walks in to feel comfortable and at-home. “This is New York’s Living Room. ”
Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was very familiar with the New York Public Library (NYPL) for the Performing Arts, having used it as a resource frequently in her work as a dramaturge for New York theaters. Even she, however, did not realize the full extent of the library’s programs and archives. Along with their general collection of plays, musical theater books, and libretti, the library has a vast treasure trove of older books on theater, recorded sounds, and film. Olivia gushed about the special collections reading room, where she had spent hours poring over the yellowing pages of old theater records. In addition to the permanent archives, the NYPL for the Performing Arts offers various theatrical, dance, and musical events within its doors. There is also an exhibition space on the main floor, where the display changes throughout the year. During the winter months, I was thrilled to be able to take my grandchildren to the "Somebody Come and Play: 45 Years of Sesame Street" exhibit. In the early spring of 2015, when we visited, the exhibit featured the life and work of Frank Sinatra. It was very well curated, with everything from a replica of his closet to videos (complete with headsets) of his performances. Olivia was a big fan of the interactive studio that allowed visitors to play with the levels of each of the instruments in a Frank Sinatra recording, in order to realize how much emphasis Sinatra placed on sound quality and production. A few of Sinatra’s paintings were set up in a corner to look like they were works in progress – who knew that the musical master also dabbled in oils? Access to the extraordinary recordings, texts, and photographs housed in these Lincoln Center archives is available to the public at no cost. The NYPL system makes it so that anyone can walk in and witness a rich trove of the world’s theatrical history.
The General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen predates even the U. S. Constitution, as it was founded two years before the document was signed. For well over two centuries, the organization has been a hub of skilled activity, and its Mechanics Institute offers tuition-free courses to help people learn an A to Z of trades within the construction and building fields. The building, with its elegant marble staircase, mosaic tiled floors and stained glass window, is yet another 44th Street New York City landmark listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, and serves as a museum to the long and storied past of the organization, where many of the traditions continue. Known to be the second oldest in the city, The General Society Library opened its doors in 1820. With a sky-lit high ceiling to let in natural light, I found it to be a beautiful room to browse through both the technical books and others selected for recreational reading. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the building houses the John M. Mossman Lock Museum, which boasts one of the world’s most complete collections of bank and vault locks. Visitors can meander through the assortment of over 370 rare locks and keys — some of which can be traced back to 4000 B. C. — and wonder at the treasures they have safeguarded. “The collection has grown in popularity as people have come to appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship of the lock mechanisms and the beauty of the keys, ” said Executive Director Victoria A. Dengel.
The New York Society Library is the oldest library in New York City. It was established in 1754 and was frequented by our founding fathers. Though there was technically no "Library of Congress" at that point in our nation's history, Carolyn Waters, the current head librarian, stated that the New York Society Library was the next best thing. It has had a vibrant history, having been looted by the Redcoats during the Revolution, moved among five different locations, and seen hoards of notable figures walk through its doors. The building holds personal meaning to me, since my mother lived directly across from the library in the 1980s and used its reference room to do research for her biography of Thomas Jefferson. Spending time here with my mom in the children's room was where the initial spark developed for the two of us to open our bookstore, "Once Upon A Time. " Coming back so many years later and having a personal tour with Carolyn was an absolute treat. I was thrilled to see that the old card catalogue in the reference room, containing drawers of titles and authors from 1989 and earlier, still remained. When I mentioned this to Carolyn, she quickly responded, "The librarians would chain themselves to it if you tried to remove it. "Though you must be a member to access the upper floors of the library, the gallery and certain events are open to visitors. Carolyn explained that membership has always been universal, even to women, dating back to the library's inception. As an example of female membership, Carolyn showed us the exhibit on Sarah Parker Goodhue who donated $600, 000 to the library in 1917, along with pieces from her husband's family's estate. The donation allowed the library to buy the building in 1937. Prior to this, it was the private home of John Rogers. Among the pieces on display was a facsimile of a letter written by George Washington – the original is temperature controlled in the library's upper floors. From the gallery, Carolyn led us into the Members' room where chairs were filled with readers. This room purposefully does not have WiFi, allowing members to experience an entirely analog environment. The whole back wall of the room is filled with exquisite china that was echoed in its detail by the walnut moldings on the walls and ceiling. Carolyn pointed out that the chairs and tables are the same furniture that was originally placed in the room in 1937. We then explored the stacks, where I asked Carolyn about the library's collection strategy. She said that for a long time fiction was considered frivolous, but that they stocked some titles because "it brought people into the library. " Because the library has limited space, the librarians continue to select their material very carefully, weeding out where necessary, but generally trying to hold onto the collection while still continuing to expand. I found it fascinating that there are records of what books have been taken out dating back to the library's beginning. As Carolyn said, "It's a study of the reading history of the city. We know what the founding fathers were reading. "Our next stop was the children's room, which was bright and airy and decorated with some of my favorite storybook characters. Meeting the children's librarian, I was pleased to hear that they continue to have children's authors and illustrators visit, and that many are members. While impressed by the carefully curated collection, it was when I discovered my mom's poetry anthology, Let's Pretend, Poems of Flight and Fancy on the shelf, that I became elated. Our final stop was to the six private reading rooms. According to Carolyn they are almost always taken, and come with a row of lockers that can be reserved on a rotating six-month schedule. It was in these rooms that my mom did much of her research and writing. Around the corner, there is a larger group reading room, called the Hornblower Room. While showing us the rooms, Carolyn shared a fun story: Apparently, Wendy Wasserstein wrote about sitting in one of the smaller study rooms as a member of the library where she was soothed by the subtle dripping of an exposed pipe. Because of this, Carolyn told us that when they renovated the room a number of years ago, they chose to keep the exposed pipe. It seemed to me like a fitting detail of the library, which has kept a perfect balance of tradition and history versus technology and modernization.