On Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street stands the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, one of the world’s most iconic libraries. Watched over by its lions, Patience and Fortitude, The New York Public Library (NYPL) has been a guardian of social equality for over one hundred years in a city where some eight hundred languages are spoken. The library means as much to New Yorkers as that icon of freedom a few miles further south, the Statue of Liberty.
Since working as a visiting professor in the United States in my twenties, I have come to recognise something special about libraries and Americans. In Europe we may see libraries as the bedrock of civilisation, embodying in word and principle our beliefs, hopes, wisdom and learning; in the US this is combined with the very spirit of American democracy, a spirit that made its country great. Although the word “library” does not appear in the more than four thousand words that make up the Constitution for the United States of America, it is very difficult to imagine the Constitution existing at all without the resources of a library behind it.
I meet Michelle Misner in the library’s busy but airy lobby.
“NYPL is a big operation,” says Michelle, beginning my journey. “The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is one of four major research libraries and eighty-eight branch libraries.”
New York City has five boroughs, NYPL serves patrons in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, while Queens Library serves the borough of Queens and Brooklyn Public Library manages branches in Brooklyn.
“NYPL branches receive over seventeen million visits per year and we serve millions of people online and hold more than fifty-one million items. This building alone has fourteen reading rooms and one public meeting room which are regularly in use. New Yorkers are a vocal and demanding community very much engaged in city life and the library.”
Michelle’s facts and observations lead me to an obvious question about funding.
“The branch libraries are largely funded by the New York City budget but the research libraries rely more on private funding. Benefactors often specify a purpose for their donation such a maintaining a collection, improving a building or room, or even a staff placement. If you’ll follow me I can introduce you to one of my favourites.”
Michelle leads me over to a plaque set in the stone floor near the library’s entrance. It reads “Martin Radtke / Gardener (1883 – 1973).”
“Martin was an immigrant from Lithuania who worked in wealthy people’s gardens in New York. When he died he left 386,000 dollars ‘so that others can have the same opportunity’ as the library had given him. In today’s money that represents a gift of over two million dollars.”
Even though New York is famed for being a place where fortunes are made, I have to ask how a gardener became so wealthy.
“The library helped him make his fortune. He spent his spare time here and studied stocks – not the floral variety but as in stocks and shares” came Michelle’s reply.
NYPL has its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century. Former governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886), bequeathed 2.4 million dollars to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” However, it was not until the end of that century that Tilden’s dream could be realised with the amalgamation of two existing libraries and the choice of a site for the envisioned New York Public Library.
John Shaw Billings, one of the most brilliant librarians of his day, was named director. Billings knew what he wanted. His concept, sketched on a scrap of paper, became the blueprint for the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It called for a reading room with seven floors of stacks and the most rapid delivery system in the world. Carrère and Hastings was selected to complete the design and construct the new library which is regarded as a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture.
More than one million books were in place for the official dedication of the Library on May 23, 1911. The response was a huge public thumbs-up with between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors on day one. In keeping with New York’s legendary diversity the first requested item was N. I. Grot&