museums&MORE Summer 2019
America’s Athenaeum

The collection of libraries in the land of boroughs

For any bibliophile, there’s a place in New York City where you can rejoice. Actually, there are 92 places where you can rejoice under the same umbrella: The New York Public Library. In three of the five boroughs that make up New York City (Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island), lovers of books, maps, antiquities and beautiful architecture alike need only a library card and a cleared schedule and they can visit any number of erected buildings to obtain an endless array of information. Founded more than 100 years ago in 1895, the New York Public Library system is the largest in the United States. It houses the greatest love stories, the tallest tales, and the most incredible collection of historical valuables like George Washington’s original Farewell Address and Christopher Columbus’s New World discovery letter.

Perhaps its most illustrious dwelling is also its most beautiful and an iconic Manhattan building. Fittingly seton Fifth Avenue, the Stephen Schwarzman building features Patience and Fortitude, the stoic stone lions perfectly placed out front as if the property’s protectors, and has been considered the main campus of this extensive library system since its completion in 1911.

If you check out the provided At-a-Glance flier on the organization’s website, you’ll learn that last year there were 16.8 million physical visitors, 26.9 million website visitors, 2.2 million library cardholders and 2 million program attendees who took part in at least one of the 113,200 programs offered throughout. To most people, these numbers seem astronomical; the number of library branches alone is tremendous; New Yorkers are serious about their reading and their research.

The library checkout system is an intricate one. You fill out a carbon-copy form with your selected title and call number, turn it into any of the librarians on the clock, and wait. Typically, you wait around 30 minutes to receive your materials, which is enough time for the information to physically be requested, found and returned. But you never see the behind-the-scenes Dewey Decimal layout. The books just appear as if magically dispensed from your dreams. In addition to selecting reading materials, the research center is one of the finest. There’s a room dedicated to ancestry and another full of just maps. This is a real-life spare-no-expense educational center.  

But this library isn’t just a quiet place to check out a book or learn about your family history; it’s a cultural institution. That’s reflected in the constantly-photographed reading rooms and the exhibits that make their way through both the main galleries as well as the maze-like hallways. Currently, the main branch is featuring “Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50” and “Walt Whitman: America’s Poet” that guests can find in the Special Collections Wing and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery respectively. Temporary exhibits are a consistent affair for the NYPL. Several times a year — usually 4-to-6 — the branch will play temporary home to a different kind of exhibit. “The shop both designs and produces the occasional item to accompany an exhibit, as we did with the tote bags for You Say You Want a Revolution (a 1960s counterculture comprehensive exhibit); Hamilton; Love & Resistance; Walt Whitman; and others,” said Helene Silver, Director of Retail Initiatives for the collection of libraries. “Plus, we select a variety of books and a little merchandise to tie in with the exhibit.”

Her favorite exhibit was The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter, curated by Leonard Marcus.

Imagine being a book-lover and a museum exhibit-hopper, and being able to work in the same building for both. That’s what it’s like for the 11 full-and 10 part-time staff members at the library’s gift shop; a 1,600-square-foot nook located just inside the main entrance of the Stephen Schwarzman building.

While they source products from trade shows, various travels and online, 20 percent of the shop’s merchandise — like the New York Public Library canvas bag — is actually designed in-house and is exclusive to The Library Shop. These library-specific items remain some of their consistent best-sellers, including Quote Totes and the Italian leather collection that’s embossed with the library stamp. “Out of Print products featuring vintage book covers (and the) Einstein action model,” are also best-sellers, according to Silver. And although there may not always be space to immediately add a new collection of gift items, they’re always looking for intriguing things. From fine jewelry and writing utensils to knick-knacks and bibliophile décor, this nook of space within the library’s confines has something for just about everyone who walks through.

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