New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Phone: (212) 930-0830.
New York City certainly isn't the place to prove that the best things in life are free.
But one important resource there never levies any charge.
And it turns out to be a great tourist stop, too.
Not unexpectedly, the nation's largest city had a head start when municipalities began building libraries around the turn of the 20th century. Collections from the Astor and Lenox libraries joined contributions from the Tilden Trust to start the New York Public Library.
The site chosen was Croton Reservoir, then the city's water supply. A wide promenade surrounded the 50-foot-high reservoir, built when 42nd Street was well north of the city limits. Tearing the complex down took 500 men about two years. Pictures of the process are displayed on the library's second floor.
Architects Carrere and Hastings won a competition to design the building. Scholar John Shaw Billings was chosen as director. The library opened in 1911, the culmination of a 10-year building project.
Though officially known as the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, one of 89 units in the New York system, this Fifth Avenue gem is generally known as the "main branch." A 12-minute video describes the facility, but it's far better to join one of the daily guided tours that begin in Astor Hall.
Architecturally, the building makes quite a statement, eliciting both awe and respect. One climbs a staircase between stone lions that guard the entrance then enters one of the world's premier repositories of knowledge. The Beaux Arts design features 4-foot-thick masonry walls veneered with another foot of Vermont marble.
The Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room, which holds 11,000 periodicals, was named for Dewitt and Lila Wallace who came here to condense articles for their pioneering Reader's Digest magazine. One assumes they enjoyed the sumptuous furnishings, all designed by the architects. The impressive ceiling is made of plaster but stained to simulate wood. Murals atop the walls depict major newspapers and book publishers.
Walking to the South Court, the only vertical expansion of the library since its opening, allows a glimpse into seven levels of the original stacks. Stacks now continue beneath Bryant Park, behind the library.
10 MILLION CARDS
Ideas critical to Billings's original plans still work.
The Rose Reading Room occupies a space the size of a football field on the third floor, as far as possible from the noise and tumult of Fifth Avenue. The ceiling soars 52 feet above the Mission tile floor. Long tables and desks furnished with brass-shaded lamps can accommodate 636 patrons. Wi-fi connections are available, and there are plenty of computers with Internet access (a 45-minute time limit applies). Still, there's table space reserved for those traditionalists who take notes with pen and paper, not on a keyboard.
When you want a specific text, you go to the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room. Here, 9,000 drawers with 10 million cards have been replaced with an online system. (If you'd like to see librarian jottings over the years, all those cards have been photocopied into 800 volumes available for perusal.) Up to three requests can be made at a time. The orders go into a pneumatic tube system, and within 20 minutes, a number will flash on a board to announce arrival.
Special collections are diverse. There's a room devoted solely to Romantic poets. The Map Division — 400,000 maps and 22,000 atlases — is the largest in the world open to public use. The Division of United States History can provide shipping lists back to 1820 and photographs of New York City collated by street address.
Rare books include the first book printed in North America (1640) and texts dating back to Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets. Other holdings range from the last surviving letter of Christopher Columbus detailing his discovery to George Washington's 32-page Farewell Address. Every July, Thomas Jefferson's final draft of the Declaration of Independence is brought out for public viewing.
One can consider the library an art gallery. The third-floor McGraw Rotunda boasts four large WPA murals telling "The Story of the Recorded Word."
In order, one sees Moses carrying the tablets down from Mount Sinai, a medieval scribe copying a text, Gutenberg displaying a proof (the library has one of 48 known copies of his Bible) and Ottmar Merganthaler showing his linotype machine to a newspaper editor. There's no painting yet to commemorate the word processor.
A rendition of the Prometheus legend fills the ceiling.
In the third-floor Edna Barnes Salomon Room, a portrait gallery features two Rembrandt Peale paintings of George Washington. Elsewhere, changing exhibits assure patrons of something new each visit. We saw a sampling of contemporary photographs of Afghanistan, an exposition of Art Deco design and a thematic display of lithographs.
And the library serves as a museum. An impressive installation on Yaddo, the artists colony outside Saratoga Springs, occupied the Gottesman Exhibition Hall during our visit. Marble arches and pillars (again from Vermont) distinguish this space as does the hand-carved, Renaissance-style wood ceiling. Daily tours of current exhibits are offered.
But in the final analysis, the place is a library, one open to anyone at no cost. Sure, if you're a noted writer, you might apply for one of the private offices granted a year at a time to individuals by the Center for Scholars and Writers. But if you're looking to start a motorcycle repair business, study early baseball cards or research the history of comic books, you'll also get the assistance you need.
On the way out, our guide directed our attention to a stone in the ground floor inscribed in honor of Martin Radtki. A Lithuanian immigrant who came to the United States as a boy, Radtki frequented the Public Library. There he learned English and furthered his education. He went on to prosper, a proud example of the successful American immigrant experience.
When Radtki died in the 1970s, he left his estate to the New York Public Library, "so that others could have the same opportunity made available." No one at the library knew who he was or that he had planned such a bequest. And that's the best part of the story for me. Today, hundreds of people walk by his stone every day, taking advantage of the quintessential American institution just as he did.
The library in New York City merits a stop next time you're in the Big Apple. But remember, the one in your own home community is worth a stop anytime.
E-mail Richard Frost at: firstname.lastname@example.org