Why You Should Go to the New York Public Library Today

Patrons and lovers of New York City's public libraries can now breathe a little easier. On June 23, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn announced to the press that the city's proposed budget cuts will not be happening this year. According to the New York Times, the controversial cuts, which (among many things) threatened to raise taxes, close firehouses, eliminate city-financed child-care, and reduce library services, were replaced by a $70 billion agreement that will allow public institutions to operate as they had been previously. The news, which came as a relief to many organizations that viewed the original plan as a giant albatross around their metaphorical necks, was undoubtedly well-received by one particular party in the package - The New York Public Library. The troubled libraries were facing a potential loss of $47 million from the government that would include layoffs of over 700 of its staff members, as well as numerous branch closings and an end to thousands of its renowned free programs. To many, this was an outrage: How could the government cut funding to a place that has served such a crucial role in the history of this city?

To understand why public indignation ensued after New Yorkers heard about the libraries' seemingly bleak future as well as why their triumph is so significant, it helps to understand the history of the institution. The original library was opened in 1911 in the place where the Croton Reservoir once stood, and it was the result of the merging of the Astor and Lenox libraries. At the time, it was the largest marble structure ever to be attempted in the United States, and it cost a considerable sum of $9 million to construct. On its opening day alone, the library attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 visitors and continued to receive a huge public response. It also housed over one million books, all of which were dedicated exclusively to New York City's brand new library. About two decades after its grand opening, its two grand lions that are located at the library's main branch on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue (also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) received the names of Patience and Fortitude from the city's then-mayor. According to him, these were the two qualities that New Yorkers needed in order to survive and overcome the Great Depression. During World War II, Schwarzman's Map Division aided the Allied military intelligence in their battle plans research, and at one point in the library's history, the windows of the Rose Main Reading Room were covered with blackout paint in case of an air raid.

Today, the libraries still have a huge presence in the lives and memories of many New Yorkers. The Schwarzman Building alone houses a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, countless resources for researchers and curious intellectuals alike, a myriad of stimulating artwork and murals, and over 15 million items, all in addition to a renowned children's section and the fact that the library itself is practically a celebrity that has been featured in a number of movies, television programs, and more. The New York Public Library's other branches also house a great deal of permanent and temporary exhibits, thousands of free programs and classes, and plenty of books and useful materials ready for the borrowing. Needless to say, these libraries are a part of history in both a broad, historical sense and a personal sense, and they have a distinct meaning to different people.

Ellen Jacobs, for example, has been infatuated with the New York Public Library for decades. Ellen, who has worked at the Schwarzman Building for the last 25 years, fell in love with the library because of its "open[ness] to everyone." As she explained, "I love that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from - these beautiful rooms and wonderful resources are [still] available to you…" Jacobs also enjoys working at the library because of its beautiful McGraw Rotunda, its many lions (they're not just out front!), and its dedication to fostering the education of children. When asked about the budget cuts the institution was facing, the seasoned docent replied that it was, "very sad…especially when people are out of work or using it to educate themselves…[but] I'm hopeful."

Even out-of-towners had something to say about the library. Lesley Lahaye, a professor in the Division of Education Studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada, was in New York City for one week and the Schwarzman Library was one of the sites-to-see on her checklist. As to what her first impressions of the landmark were, Leslie commented, "It's just such beautiful architecture, it's so rich with history. In Western Canada, where I live, everything is new, there's not that sense of history. And the library is such an important symbol for learning and equity…I just think of the history of the United States and the fact that this wonderful building is here and accessible to people and think it's a wonderful thing. …It feels good to walk into the library and see it full of people. We're so reliant on technology for information nowadays; it's good to see that the library's still being used."

Another advocate of the funding and preservation of the library also shared a few words about what the place meant to him. Richard Stern, a New York City native and volunteer of two months spoke of how he was "dazzled and awed" many years ago by the place where he would later come to work. He also mentioned his reasoning behind his love for the New York City institution and said, "I love the smell of old books. But I also love the grandeur of the library and I love the idea that people can come here for free and sit in that huge reading room and read books that they want to. Of course now they can access much of the library with computers, and it's the services that the library provides for free that impress me most." In addition to admiring the building's overall concept and aesthetic, the Shakespeare enthusiast also raved about its free exhibits and resources, its extensive collections, and he even managed to sum up the allure of the iconic landmark in just two simple sentences: "There are many things to be found; it's full of excitement and beauty. I invite everyone to come."