New York treasures: the NY Public Library

There are lots of things people love about New York City. For me, one of the top  reasons is the New York Public Library (NYPL).

I moved here for PhD studies in late 1980s. I could not afford to buy books, new or used, so I has to find local public library to feed my reading habit. Along with my school ID and my bank card, the NYPL card made me feel I belonged here.

Reading the books I borrowed for three weeks at a time was a lot more fun than reading the books I later owned because they came with traces left by the previous readers: underlined sentences, comments in the margins, coffee stains, grocery store receipts as bookmarks… Reading was like being on an archeology expedition. Imagining the previous readers, guessing why they underlined a sentence or put a star next to a paragraph, and agreeing or disagreeing with their margin notes. 

A few years later, as a United Nations staff member, I no longer had to depend on the public library for books because as a working professional I could afford to buy books, even some hardcover expensive ones. Over 20 years later I gravitated back to the library, around the time when I was deciding on retiring early. Soon enough my favorite lunch time location became the garden of the NYPL Main Library on 42nd street and 5th Avenue. I could read old, rare and esoteric books which the library staff would get for me through inter-library loan or dig out from the stacks spread under Bryant Park behind the library. Over time I discovered other NYPL branches. Below is my experience with a few of these branches, as a recognition of the institution.

NYPL Main library known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, is the jewel in the crown of the NYPL system. With over 4 million books it is the fourth largest library in the US and ninth in a list of “35 best libraries in the world.” It is a research library that is accessible by all unlike those of universities where access is granted to registered students. 

The building is over a century old, built in the early 1900s and opened in 1911. It has several reading rooms. My favorite is the Map Room (North side of the main floor. It is a small, intimate room with three large tables one of which is reserved for map viewing. It is a quiet room except when a group of tourists drop in because the room is mentioned in tourist guides. Upon entering, the tourists hush themselves feeling the gravitas of the room. One can read, write, research and also just think while taking in the beautifully painted ceiling and the artwork and maps on the walls.

In the Map Room, I read numerous rare books that you can only read in the library because they are too old and fragile to take home. One that was very interesting was the Narrative of the embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the court of Timour at Samarcand, A.D. 1403-6, published in 1412. De Clavijo was a priest sent by the Andalusian crown to visit the land of Tamerlane and establish relations. The book is his travel diary and report. (I am interested in Tamerlane because family lore says we are his descendants although there is no proof except for how the men in the family from the paternal side amazingly resembled the original man. We also have his famous stubbornness and dislike of lies.) An English language version of this book was published in 1859, which is the version I read, being careful not to damage the fragile pages. There is a digital version in case you are interested.

The truly grand space in this building is the main reading room, the Rose Room, on the third floor. When the building was reopened after a long renovation, the New Yorker described it as “the biggest room in the biggest public library in the country’s biggest city.” This is a huge room, almost overwhelming. It evokes long ago times: heavy wooden tables and chairs, quaint reading lamps, walls lined up with stacks of books three levels deep, and huge windows. 

67th street branch is where I spent a lot of time during the year before my retired life started. The building is from 1905. It has the same common services of branch libraries like free wi-fi and after school programs for kids. But it also has a backyard which is uncommon. Sitting in the backyard you forget that you are in a megapolis. There is also a “quiet room” downstairs, looking into the backyard, where you can do concentrated reading or writing or both. 

Performing Arts Library is the most special branch for me as a musician. This branch has a modern building in Lincoln Center where the city’s opera, ballet and symphony live. Many users of the branch are students from the nearby Juilliard School. The place has a creative energy in the air that you can almost touch,  just like Juilliard also does. 

The branch has pretty good collection of sheet music, including several rows of stacks for the classical guitar, my instrument. I found guitar music that is no longer in print so impossible to buy. Sheet music can be borrowed like books. Often I leave the branch with my backpack full of sheet music to take home for a few weeks, and then drop them off at my neighborhood library because the NYPL has a system to return borrowed items to their home library.  

The Performing Arts Library also houses a large collection of audio-visual materials: recordings of operas, ballets, recitals, concerts, movies. They are all available to borrow with using your library card. This is most useful to those NY residents who do not have access to high speed internet to stream content. Cable access in NY city is quite expensive making the cable companies the contemporary robber barons of New York, after the landlords of course.

34th street Branch at the corner of Madison avenue is a recent  discovery for me. This is the Science, Industry and Business library of the NYPL. Here people can get help with learning how to start a start-up, finding jobs, or writing resumes. The place has a lot of wood paneling suggestive of big leather wing- backed chairs and fancy reading lamps! The branch has a large reading room surrounded by the stacks. Computers are available for job searches or business research. The library staff is happy to help find what you need. A number of smaller rooms downstairs are used for various classes the NYPL offers for free. I took some of the free computer programming classes (HTML, CSS, Javascript).

NYPL is a true treasure of this city. With nearly 90 branches (in Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island), there is a branch nearby. It is welcoming and helpful in a city that can be harsh, lonesome, standoffish and unfriendly.

Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have their own library systems, both as old as NYPL. More to explore!

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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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