Checking out The New York Public Library

Was it the word “tour” or “library” that left my husband scratching his head as I explained my plan for our next grand adventure.

We had three nights in New York City and I wanted to make the most of our short stay. A few years ago on a family trip, I had a glimpse of The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42ndStreet. I remember how the experience left me wanting more. In my travel language, “more” translates into “tour.”

We joined about 20 others on a one-hour jaunt through this transporting place. Tours are offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 2 p.m. on Sundays, except when it’s closed on Sundays in the summer.

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The reservoir that provided New York City’s water supply used to occupy the site where the library now stands. It took two years to dismantle it before the library could be built. Part of the reservoir’s foundation can be seen from the South Court Lobby.

In the left photo, look down the stairway to see the reservoir foundation. At right, our tour guide explains how the exterior walls of the original building had to remain intact as part of the library’s expansion. The photo below shows the connection between old and new.

Completed in 1911, the Beaux-Arts building was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States at the time. 

Colorful marble came from countries including Germany, France and Italy. Some of the building’s white marble even came from the same quarry used to build the Parthenon in Greece.

One of the questions our guide said she frequently gets is “where are the books?” That’s when she took us to a tucked away corner where we could peer through the windows to see rows upon rows and levels upon levels of books.

Simply fill out a book-request form, hand it to the librarian and within 30 minutes your order arrives on a dumb waiter in the reading room. Forget about taking any of the books home with you. That’s forbidden, along with taking pictures on one side of the reading room. Why do I love to learn that lesson the hard way? Sometimes ignoring the signs and asking for forgiveness works. Other times, it’s just plain embarrassing.

Protected behind glass in the football-field-size, seven-story-tall, chandeliered reading room is the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States. It’s one of 180 copies originally printed.

Also stored in the library and displayed around the Fourth of July is one of Thomas Jefferson’s copies of the Declaration of Independence penned with his own hand.

Other items of interest include Charles Dickens’ manuscript of “A Christmas Carol” with notes in the margins, Virginia Woolf’s last diary entry, a pair of Jack Kerouac’s glasses, an early map showing California as an island and the original stuffed animals that inspired the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh books. However, many of these quirky heirlooms require a reservation and academic reason to see them.

Tours also are offered for the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit that runs through Feb. 17, 2013. 

It’s a fun step back in time revealing how the lunch hour evolved over the past century – from the quick lunch spurred by punch clocks and pocket watches to the Automat with meals appearing behind glass doors where only a nickel inserted into a slot stood between you and lunch. 

The American diet craze, street vendors, power business lunches and charitable school lunch programs also take center stage in the exhibit.
I didn’t expect to get engrossed in the topic, but I did. I should know by now that anything wrapped around food is going to hold my attention.

Libraries are magical places. There’s something about walking into a structure that holds enormous amounts of knowledge accessible to anyone. It symbolizes the potential to improve any person’s life and, ultimately, make dreams come true.

I have fond childhood memories of library trips with my mom. I loved the empowered feeling that came with toting home a load of books on any subject that interested me.

As pointed out by the New York Public Library Guide, some of the earliest beneficiaries of the library were the recently arrived immigrants for whom the library provided insight into their new country as well as their heritage.

President William Howard Taft said in his speech at the library’s opening, “The dedication of this beautiful structure for the spread of knowledge among the people marks not only the consummation of a noteworthy plan for bringing within the grasp of the humblest and poorest citizen the opportunity for acquiring information on every subject of every kind, but it furnishes a model and examples for other cities … .”

While libraries continue to redefine themselves in this instant, digital information age, The New York Public Library stands as one visible, solid pillar of the power of knowledge.

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