You don’t have to be a Library Nerd like me to appreciate the soaring spaces and the exquisite detailing of one New York’s most recognized buildings. However, if (like me) you get goosebumps when in close proximity to earthy tomes stuffed with all manner of archaic knowledge, then these fun facts of the New York Public Library are definitely for you.
These walls between 42nd Street and 5th Ave. can surely talk and they will gladly spill their deepest secrets to those who simply take the time to listen. Deep within the miles of stacks located under this magnificent building there are whispers – can you hear them? From the odd and slightly creepy articles on display to the profoundly historic documents kept safe and protected, the New York Public Library has something for everyone to enjoy.
New York Public Library – So Much More Than Books!
Odd and Slightly Creepy
- In the Collections area, you’ll find Charles Dickens’s favorite letter opener – the ivory shaft is topped with the embalmed paw of his favorite cat, Bob, claws and all.
- Fragments of the skull of Percy Bysshe Shelly can be found displayed and matted on cardboard in Room 319
- New York Public Library keeps locks of hair from notables like Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, and Wild Bill Hickok, and…
- The cane Virginia Woolf left on the riverbank the day she committed suicide.
- Over 40,000 restaurant menus – from 1850 to present – are logged in the Library archives
- In the Library, you’ll also find a copy of the so-called “Wicked Bible”, printed in London in 1631. In it, the word “not” was omitted from the prohibition on adultery.
- At his death in 1886, New York governor Samuel J. Tilden bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” In the early 1890s, a Tilden trustee devised a plan to combine two existing private libraries—those of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox—and the Tilden Trust to form The New York Public Library. The deal was signed and agreed upon on May 23, 1895.
- Work on the Manhattan Library branch of the NYPL began in 1899 and took 12 years to complete. It was built on the site of the Croton Reservoir.
- On opening day in 1911, the library hosted over 50,000 visitors and held the title of the largest marble building in the United States.
- It took 20 tons of coal to heat the library in the early years – per day!
- During World War II, Allied military intelligence used the Map Division to research and prepare battle plans.
- In 2008, the Library’s main structure on 42nd Ave was renamed the Steven A. Schwarzman building. The library is being renamed in his honor after Mr. Schwarzman, a Wall Street financier, contributed $100 million to the institution, one of the largest gifts to a cultural institution in New York City.
- Since 1987, the original Winnie-the-Pooh bear and his friends – Eeeyore, Kanga, Piglet, and Tigger have lived in the NYPL.
- Edward Land developed the Polaroid Land Camera and Chester Carlson invented the photocopier through research conducted at the Library.
- Frank McCourt, recently immigrated from Ireland, was sent to the Library by an Irish bartender, and later credited the NYPL in his memoir, ‘Tis, for an informal education.
- Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room.
- A first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, signed by author J. K. Rowling, was given to the Library and the city to honor its tenacity since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
- One of the most valuable items contained in the Library is a rare Gutenberg Bible printed in the 1450s. The Lenox copy on display, printed on paper, is the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, in 1847. Its arrival is the stuff of romantic national folklore. James Lenox’s European agent issued instructions for New York that the officers at the Customs House were to remove their hats on seeing it – such was the honor and privilege of viewing a Gutenberg Bible.
- Made of 530,000 cubic feet of marble, with exterior walls that are 12 inches thick. There was so much hard marble on the floors that in 1911, the employees were given rubber-soled shoes to protect their feet.
- The stacks contain 125 miles of shelving — 88 miles in the seven stack floors of the original building and 37 miles in the two-level stack extension under Bryant Park.
- The Library Lions, Patience and Fortitude, are larger than life, each stretching more than 11 feet (not counting the tail), about three feet longer than their wild prototypes. Originally named Lord Lennox and Lady Astor, (even though they are both males), they were nicknamed by Mayor LaGuardia in the 1930’s because he felt that New Yorkers needed these qualities to survive the Great Depression.
- Not everyone was happy about the choice of African Lions to grace the front of the library – Teddy Roosevelt wanted buffaloes to symbolize the American West.
- It’s 646,680 total square feet: the total size of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd and 5th Avenue in New York City!
New York Public Library Online – NYPL
If you’re searching online, you won’t find it listed as the Manhattan Public Library…it’s the New York Public Library or NYP.org. The on-line digital collections are amazing – with over 800,000 digital historic photographic images available to the public for viewing and nearly 400,000 e-books to download. When you visit, it’s easy to pick up your own library card to have access to the library digital collections and e-books from the comfort of your home – wherever that may be.
Free Tours of the New York Public Library
I hope these fun facts about the New York Public Library whet your appetite for a visit the next time you’re in NYC. For even more in-depth information about the history of this Library, be sure to check out the free docent-led tours at 11am and 2pm on Monday through Saturdays. Tours meet at the reception desk in Astor Hall (to the left as you enter the library). Tours are available on a first come basis and are limited to 25 people.