New York Public Library in New York City

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The New York Public Library (NYPL) is the largest public library in North America and is one of the United States' most significant research libraries. It is a privately managed, nonprofit corporation with a public mission, operating with both private and public financing. The historian David McCullough has described the New York Public Library as one of the five most important libraries in the United States, the others being the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.

The New York Public Library has branches in the boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island. According to the American Library Association, the branch libraries comprise the third largest library in the United States. New York City's other two boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, are served by the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library respectively. These libraries predate the consolidation of New York City. Taken as a whole the three library systems in the city of New York have 209 branches with 63 million items in their collections.

Currently, the New York Public Library consists of 87 libraries: four non-lending research libraries, four main lending libraries, a library for the blind and physically challenged, and 77 neighborhood branch libraries in the three boroughs served. All libraries in the NYPL system may be used free of charge by all visitors. As of 2010, the research collections contain 44,507,623 items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.). The Branch Libraries contain 8,438,775 items.Together the collections total nearly items, a number surpassed only by the Library of Congress and the British Library.



Although New York City already had plenty of libraries in the 19th century, almost all of them were privately funded and many charged admission or usage fees. Meanwhile, other American cities, notably Boston, had led the way in providing public libraries that were open to the general masses, and The New York Times editorialized that besides educating the citizens, having a public library should be a matter of civic pride. On the other hand, there was opposition to the idea that the unlearned should be allowed unfettered access to knowledge; the goal of education was to keep the public docile and obedient. Progressives then countered that educating people in the basics but not letting them partake of further intellectual development was tantamount to a crime.

Eventually, the progressive idea took greater hold, and several free circulating libraries were established, but they were all of small scale. Former Governor of New York and presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden felt that a library with city-wide reach was required, and upon his death in 1886, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune—about —to "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York". This money would sit untouched in a trust for several years, until John Bigelow, a New York attorney, and trustee of the Tilden fortune, came up with an idea to merge two of the city's largest libraries.

The Astor Library was a reference library founded at the suggestion of bibliographer Joseph Cogswell by German immigrant John Jacob Astor, the United States' first multi-millionaire. It was located in the East Village and was constructed in 1854 (the building now houses The Public Theater) by Astor's son William Backhouse Astor, Sr. It charged no admission for the use of its vast collection, but the books were not permitted to leave the premises, and the hours were limited.

Over the decades, the library system added branch libraries, and the research collection expanded until, by the 1970s, it was clear the collection eventually would outgrow the existing structure. In the 1980s the central research library added more than 125,000 square feet ( of space and literally miles of bookshelf space to its already vast storage capacity to make room for future acquisitions. This expansion required a major construction project in which Bryant Park, directly west of the library, was closed to the public and excavated. The new library facilities were built below ground level and the park was restored above it.

On July 17, 2007, the building was briefly evacuated and the surrounding area was cordoned off by New York police because of a suspicious package found across the street. It turned out to be a bag of old clothes.

In the three decades before 2007, the building's interior was gradually renovated.

On December 20, 2007, the library announced it would undertake a three-year, renovation of the building exterior, which has suffered damage from weathering and pollution. The renovation was completed on time, and on February 2, 2011 the refurbished facade was unveiled. The restoration design was overseen by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., whose previous projects include the Metropolitan Museum of Art's limestone facades and the American Museum of Natural History, made of granite. These renovations were underwritten by a $100-million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose name will be inscribed at the bottom of the columns which frame the building's entrances.

Other research branches

Even though the central research library on 42nd Street had greatly expanded its capacity, in the 1990s the decision was made to remove that portion of the research collection devoted to science, technology, and business to a new location. The new location was the abandoned B. Altman department store on 34th Street. In 1995, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the library, the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of Manhattan, finally opened to the public. Upon the creation of the SIBL, the central research library on 42nd Street was renamed the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

Today there are four research libraries that comprise the NYPL's outstanding research library system which hold approximately 44,000,000 items. Total item holdings, including the collections of the Branch Libraries, are . The Humanities and Social Sciences Library on 42nd Street is still the heart of the NYPL's research library system but the SIBL, with approximately volumes and 60,000 periodicals, is quickly gaining greater prominence in the NYPL's research library system because of its up-to-date electronic resources available to the general public. The SIBL is the nation's largest public library devoted solely to science and business. The NYPL's two other research libraries are the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, located at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, located at Lincoln Center. In addition to their reference collections, the Library for the Performing Arts and the SIBL also have circulating components that are administered by the NYPL's Branch Libraries system.

Recent history

Unlike most other great libraries, such as the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library was not created by government statute. From the earliest days of the New York Public Library, a tradition of partnership of city government with private philanthropy began, which continues to this day.

In 2010, as part of the consolidation program, the NYPL moved various back-office operations to the new Library Services Center building in Long Island City using a former warehouse renovated for . In the basement, a new, book sorter uses bar codes on library items to sort them for delivery to 132 branch libraries. At two-thirds the length of a football field, the machine is the largest of its kind in the world, according to library officials. Books located in one branch and requested from another go through the sorter, which cut the previous waiting time by at least a day. Together with 14 library employees, the machine can sort 7,500 items an hour (or 125 a minute). On the first floor of the Library Services Center is an ordering and cataloging office; on the second, the digital imaging department (formerly at the Main Branch building) and the manuscripts and archives division, where the air is kept cooler; on the third, the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, with a staff of 10 (as of 2010) but designed for as many as 30 employees.

These changes are justified as the road to new collaborations and new synergy, however, restructuring has meant that several veteran librarians with institutional memory have left and age-level specialists in the boroughs have been cut back.



Since 1968 Telephone Reference has been an integral part of The New York Public Library's reference services, although it existed long before in a limited way. Now known as ASK NYPL, the service provides answers by phone and online via chat and e-mail 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Library users can ask reference questions in Spanish and English and seek help at anytime through online chat via the Library's website. Through participation in an international cooperative, the Library receives support answering questions outside regular hours.

The service fulfilled nearly 70,000 requests for information in 2007. Inquiries range from the serious and life-changing (a New Orleans resident who lost his birth certificate in Katrina needing to know how to obtain a copy; turns out he was born in Brooklyn), to the fun or even off-the-wall (a short-story writer researching the history of Gorgonzola cheese). In 1992 a selection of unusual and entertaining questions and answers from ASK NYPL was the source for Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service's Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions, a popular volume published by Fireside Books. National and international questioners have included scores of newspaper reporters, authors, celebrities, professors, secretaries, CEOs, and everyone in between.

In 2008 The New York Public Library's ASK NYPL reference service introduced two enhancements that improve and expand the service.

The Library recently launched 917-ASK-NYPL, a new easier to remember telephone number for Library information and for asking reference questions. Every day, except Sundays and holidays, between and EST/EDT, anyone, of any age, from anywhere in the world can telephone 917-275-6975 and ask a question. The library staff will not answer crossword or contest questions, do children's homework, or answer philosophical speculations.


The New York Public Library website provides access to the library's catalogs, online collections and subscription databases, and has information about the library's free events, exhibitions, computer classes and English as a Second Language classes. The two online catalogs, LEO (which searches the circulating collections) and CATNYP (which searches the research collections) allow users to search the library's holdings of books, journals and other materials. The LEO system allows cardholders to request books from any branch and have them delivered to any branch.

The NYPL gives cardholders free access from home to thousands of current and historical magazines, newspapers, journals and reference books in subscription databases, including EBSCOhost, which contains full text of major magazines; full text of the New York Times (1995–present), Gale's Ready Reference Shelf which includes the Encyclopedia of Associations and periodical indexes, Books in Print; and Ulrich's Periodicals Directory.

The NYPL Digital Gallery is a database of over 700,000 images digitized from the library's collections. The Digital Gallery was named one of Time Magazine's 50 Coolest Websites of 2005 and Best Research Site of 2006 by an international panel of museum professionals.

Other databases available only from within the library include Nature, IEEE and Wiley science journals, Wall Street Journal archives, and Factiva.


A new NYPL strategy adopted in 2006 anticipated merging branch and research libraries into "One NYPL". The organizational change anticipated a unified online catalog for all the collections, as well as one card for both branch and research libraries.<ref name="answers3"/>

Despite public relations' assurances, the 2009 website and online-catalog transition did not proceed smoothly, with patrons and staff equally at a loss for how to work effectively with the new system. Reassuring press releases followed the initial implementation, and notices were posted in branch and research libraries.

NYPL police

The NYPL maintains a force of NYC special patrolmen who provide security and protection to various libraries and NYPL special investigators who oversee security operations at the library facilities. These officials have on-duty arrest authority granted by NYS penal law; however, some library branches use contracted security guards for security.

In popular culture


  • The NYPL has frequently appeared in feature films. It serves as the backdrop for a central plot development in the 2002 film Spider-Man and a major location in the 2004 apocalyptic science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow. In the 1978 film, The Wiz, Dorothy and Toto stumble across it, one of its lions comes to life, and joins them on their journey out of Oz.
  • It is also featured prominently in the 1984 film Ghostbusters with three of the titular protagonists encountering the ghost of a librarian named Eleanor Twitty, who becomes violent when approached. Her origins and the library's prominent standing are explored in the video game sequel, '. In May 2010, the library invited comedy group Improv Everywhere to put on a brief performance in the main reading room based on ghostbusters as a promotional stunt.
  • Other films in which the library appears include 42nd Street (1933), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), You're a Big Boy Now (1966), A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Chapter Two (1979), Escape from New York (1981), Prizzi's Honor (1985), Regarding Henry (1991), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), The Time Machine (2002), and Sex and the City (2008).
  • A thinly-disguised NYPL is the employer of a librarian with access to many mythical objects imparting magical powers for fighting evil in a series of films starring Noah Wyle. The first of the series is '.


  • It was featured in the pilot episode of the ABC series Traveler as the Drexler Museum of Art.
  • The animated television series Futurama has Fry confronting a giant brain there in the episode "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid".
  • In an episode of Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) dates an NYPL librarian, Jerry Seinfeld is accosted by a library cop (Philip Baker Hall) for late fees, and George Costanza (Jason Alexander) encounters his high school gym teacher living homeless on the its steps.
  • It is the setting for much of "The Persistence of Memory", the eleventh part of Carl Sagan's ' TV series.


  • Lynne Sharon Schwartz's The Writing on the Wall (2005) features a language researcher at NYPL who grapples with her past following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
  • Cynthia Ozick's 2004 novel Heir to the Glimmering World, set just prior to World War II, involves a refugee-scholar from Hitler's Germany researching the Karaite Jews at NYPL.
  • In the 1996 novel Contest by Matthew Reilly, the NYPL is the setting for an intergalactic gladiatorial fight that results in the building's total destruction.
  • In the 1984 murder mystery by Jane Smiley, Duplicate Keys, an NYPL librarian stumbles on two dead bodies, c. 1930.
  • In Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, the main character visits the NYPL to look up her condition in the dictionary.
  • Allen Kurzweil's The Grand Complication is the story of an NYPL librarian whose research skills are put to work finding a missing museum object.
  • Lawrence Blochman's 1942 mystery Death Walks in Marble Halls features a murder committed using a brass spindle from a catalog drawer.
  • A lightly fictionalized portrait of the Jewish Division's first chief, Abraham Solomon Freidus, is found in a chapter of Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).
  • Linda Fairstein's Lethal Legacy (2009) is mainly centered around the library.
  • Smaller mentions of the library can be found in:
    • Henry Sydnor Harrison's V.V.'s Eyes (1913)
    • P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress (1919)
    • Christopher Morley's short story "Owd Bob" in his humor book Mince Pie (1919)
    • James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)
    • Bernard Malamud's short story "The German Refugee" (in his Complete Stories [1997]; originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1963)
    • Stephen King's Firestarter (1980)
    • B. J. Chute's The Good Woman (1986)
    • Sarah Schulman's Girls, Visions and Everything (1986)
    • Isaac Bashevis Singer's posthumous Shadows on the Hudson (1998)


Both branches and the central building have been immortalized in numerous poems, including:

  • Richard Eberhart's "Reading Room, The New York Public Library" (in his Collected Poems, 1930–1986 [1988])
  • Arthur Guiterman's "The Book Line; Rivington Street Branch, New York Public Library" (in his Ballads of Old New York [1920])
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Library Scene, Manhattan" (in his How to Paint Sunlight [2001])
  • Muriel Rukeyser's "Nuns in the Wind" (in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser [2005])
  • Paul Blackburn's "Graffiti" (in The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn [1985])
  • E.B. White's "Reading Room" (Poems and Sketches of E.B. White [1981])
  • Susan Thomas' "New York Public Library" (the anthology American Diaspora [2001])
  • Aaron Zeitlin's poem about going to the library, included in his 2-volume Ale lider un poemes [Complete Lyrics and Poems] (1967 and 1970)


Excerpts from several of the many memoirs and essays mentioning the New York Public Library are included in the anthology Reading Rooms (1991), including reminiscences by Alfred Kazin, Henry Miller, and Kate Simon.

A replica of the library is also featured in Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Florida

Other New York City library systems

The New York Public Library, serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, is one of three separate and independent public library systems in New York City. The other two library systems are the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library.

According to the latest Mayor's Management Report, New York City's three public library systems had a total library circulation of 35 million broken down as follows: the NYPL and BPL (with 143 branches combined) had a circulation of , and the QBPL system had a circulation of through its 62 branch libraries. Altogether the three library systems also hosted visitors in 2006.

Private libraries in New York City, some of which can be used by the public, are listed in Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Gale).

See also

  • Education in New York City
  • Google Books Library Project
  • List of museums and cultural institutions in New York City
  • Benjamin Miller Collection NYPL Collection of Postage Stamps


External links