Friday, April 26, 2013

Putting On My Tourist Glasses: The New York City Library Part I

We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong on Grooveshark

I'm quite aware that when you're on vacation in a foreign country, you tend to see things through rose-tinted glasses.  I've never been more aware of that until I landed in New York City.  Let's see how this works:

The Situation:
In Paris It’s…
At Home [Or, NYC] it’s…
Street performers pressuring you for money.
Magnificent!  In the long tradition of genius artistes starving it out in Paris, they are grandly working for their money while the cruel world refuses to acknowledge their labor.  Here’s a Euro or two!  I love Paris!
Vagabonds creating noise.  
High cost of everything from milk to perfume.
What can you do? It’s Paris and things are dear because they are beautifully made with the finest quality, I totally don’t mind shelling out $8 for my daily Starbucks.  I love Paris!
Highway robbery. 
Having to walk everywhere because of the crowds and exorbitant cost of maintaining a car in the city. 
I love the exercise!  And the scenery is worth a million dollars.  I love Paris!
My feet hurt.  Walking sucks. 
Tiny cramped quarters for a zillion dollars.
It’s the price for romance and living in a city that has enticed a million other lost souls for hundreds of years.  I love Paris!
Soul-sucking landlords, why is this world so full of hate?!
Rude people. 
Ah, the poor French, inundated with obnoxious tourists, I must endeavor to be understanding.  I love Paris!
You’re a disgrace to your mother, crawl back to the cave you came from!  I hate people!
Stinky people.
Ah, the quaint French, and their disdain for deodorant.  I love Paris!
I want to gag and die just to escape this felonious assault on my nose.  I hate people!

But then I thought, what happened to the mindset of appreciating where I live?  New York City has so much to offer, that's why I came here in the first place.  Put on your tourist glasses Alexandra!

So I decided to visit a place that's always held a special place in my heart:  the library.  I've always been obsessed with reading, when I was kid, my most favorite way to pass a Saturday was with a library bag full of new books and a basket of apples.  My parents had to restrict my reading and I would read at night under the covers with a flashlight.  Nerd problems, am I right?!

New York City has the second largest library in the United States (behind the Library of Congress) with 53 million items, the third largest in the world (after the Library of Congress and the British Library) and is likely the foremost research library in the world.  Established in 1895 by philanthropists and socialites such as John Astor, James Lenox and Andrew Carnegie, the main building was declared a National Historic Landmark.  The main library is located right next to Bryant Park and Times Square, so if you're in the area visiting or you just want a gorgeous place to do some quiet reading, it is absolutely worth a drop in:  it's beautiful, full of history and free exhibitions curated by world-class institutions.  This is, after all, a library with an annual budget of $245 million.  Yes, you read that correctly.  They'll even loan you a laptop (if you have a library card).  It's quite fancy because it's mostly privately funded.  

The building is a Beaux-Arts design; the famous stone lions are named "Patience" and "Fortitude." Can you tell the founding board was predominantly Protestant?

The exterior during construction in 1908.  
And today. 
Over the past century, the building exterior had greatly deteriorated due to weather and pollution.  In 2007, the exterior was restored thanks to a $100 million contribution by Stephen Schwarzman whose name now graces the building.  The Schwarzman building is the one you see above.  It is the main public library which houses the Humanities and Social Sciences collection and has the famous, large reading room.  The entire system of the New York City Library, however, outgrew this building and its collection was split into four separate locations.

At the time it opened, the building was the largest marble structure in the United States.  

To get to the main reading room, you take a corridor to the right up three flights of stairs

The third floor rotunda leading to the main reading room.

The main reading room facing north.  

The main reading room facing south.  Isn't it gorgeous?? The whole building is stunning and luxurious and consistently has interesting exhibitions...and it's filled with tens of millions of...books.  HEAVEN.

The main reading room in the early 1900s.
Since its creation, the New York City Library was unique in that it wasn't an entirely governmental project - it's always been a partnership between the city and private philanthropists...there's no way a city could maintain literally hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding every year for a library.  And serving on its board, that determined the policies in the acquisition of books for circulation, was considered very prestigious.  The board had access to hundreds of millions in funding and selectively acquired collections - books and artifacts - from around the world that it deemed "worthy."  Its goal was to become the best public research library in the world.   

For example, in 1931, the board decided to purchase the private library of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, uncle of the last tsar of Russia.  The Grand Duke had loved books his whole life, inheriting his father's famous libraries.  The entire collection filled 3 huge libraries at the Vladimir Palace.  It was one of the largest acquisitions, ever, of Russian books and other materials and only possible because at that time, the tsar was amenable to selling national treasures to foreigners in order to finance Russia's participation in the world wars.

The Library is full of other treasures including a Gutenberg Bible from the 1400s, the first to arrive in the United States, courtesy of James Lenox himself:

It's amazing that almost 600 years later, the print is still dark and clear.  Gutenberg had invented a new oil-based ink that created the intense saturation.  
I loved this walk through history!  And I think I've found a study room now.  The rules to the library were posted in the catalogue room and included the following:  no offensive body odor; no shopping carts; and no sleeping.  Love the city! 

I'm sure there are treasures in whatever city you are located.  Put on your tourist glasses and enjoy the present wherever you are.  

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