New York Public Library: Planning Your Visit

exterior of the new york public library

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

If you're planning a trip to New York City, you won't want to miss visiting the historic main branch of the New York Public Library. You don't need to be a book lover to appreciate the majesty of this building, which has been a fundamental part of the city for over a century. While many tourists pass by to snap a picture of the famous lions outside and continue on sightseeing, the true treasures are inside.

While people often refer to the landmark building in Midtown as the "New York Public Library" or NYPL, it's actually just the main branch of the entire New York Public Library system which stretches across Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx (Brooklyn and Queens each have their own borough-specific library systems). The term NYPL technically refers to all library branches, buildings, and research centers, with the flagship location officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Fortunately, if you ask any local for the "New York Public Library," they'll know exactly which one you're talking about.

History

The New York Public Library was created in 1895 by combining the collections of the Astor and Lenox Libraries with a $2.4 million trust from Samuel J. Tilden that was given to, "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York." Sixteen years later, on May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft, along with New York Governor John Alden Dix and New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor, dedicated the new library and opened it to the public the next day.

The site of the old Croton Reservoir was chosen for the new library. When the building opened, it was the largest marble building in the United States and already home to over three million books.

Architecture

Eighty-eight of the best architectural firms in New York City competed to win the bid for designing the new library, ultimately going to the relatively unknown firm Carrère and Hastings. The designers had both studied in Paris, which clearly served as inspiration for the Beaux-Arts style that the library is still famous for. Their design was considered one of the greatest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture and it served as a template for libraries all around the world.

Inside the New York Public LIbrary
TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

Tours and Events

Exploring this great free attraction is easy and open to all—you only need a library card if you want to actually check something out or use the research rooms. To learn about the library in a more formal setting, you can join one of the two free tours for a more comprehensive visit. The Building Tour is one hour and is the best way to take in the highlights of the building's Beaux-Arts architecture. The Exhibition Tour offers a chance to look inside the library's current exhibitions.

Visitors today can conduct research, take a tour, attend numerous events, or just wander through the library to view its many treasures and artworks.

Library Highlights

Whether you're a bibliophile, budding architect, or just a lover of NYC history, there are a few must-see spots that deserve a spot on your library itinerary.

  • Astor Hall. You can't miss Astor Hall during your trip to the library because it's the very first room you walk in when entering from the main Fifth Avenue entrance—and it sure does make a first impression. The white marble arches with the grand staircase are redolent of the extravagance of Grand Central Station, and it's no wonder people rent out the room for weddings or other special events.
  • Rose Reading Room. When people imagine grand libraries with dark wood, hand-painted ceilings, and endless rows of books, they're thinking of something like the Rose Reading Room. It's the biggest room in the massive library, and its grandeur is practically unmatched in any other building in the city. The Beaux-Arts design is intentionally mixed with decidedly Renaissance elements for an even more ornate feel.
  • McGraw Rotunda. The third-floor McGraw Rotunda is another space that's rented out for its lavishness. Climb the staircase to see its marble arches, Corinthian columns, and the New Deal-era murals by American painter Edward Laning.
  • Public Catalog Room. Connecting the Rose Reading Room and the McGraw Rotunda is the Public Catalog Room, where library users once received handwritten cards to find their books. Today, computers in the room are used instead, but this is still where you can find the main librarian's desk and ask questions or apply for a library card.
  • The Lions. Undoubtedly the library's most iconic feature is the two lion sculptures that stand watch outside. They're as old as the library itself and are so ingrained in New York culture that they've become a symbol of the whole city. Their current names were given to them during the Great Depression by Mayor LaGuardia to encourage New Yorkers through difficult hardships: Patience sits on the south side of the steps and his feline partner Fortitude is on the north side. To keep them looking their best, both lions go through an exhaustive restoration process about once every seven to 10 years.
  • Children's Center. The Children's Center in the library is designed with kids aged 12 and under in mind, but there are a few residents here that appeal to both kids and kids at heart. Here you can find the original stuffed animals that inspired the timeless characters from Winnie-the-Pooh. The stuffed Pooh bear is accompanied by Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger, which all belonged to the real-life child Christopher Robin. If you've ever been a fan of these classic stories, it's worth a visit to see the toys that inspired them all.
  • Croton Reservoir. Throughout the 19th century, a reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue served as the main water supply for residents in New York City. The reservoir was already in disuse when the library was constructed on the same land, but parts of the original foundation are still visible in the library today in the South Court building.
  • Rare Book Division. Some of the library's oldest, most cherished, and most valuable objects are kept in the Rare Book Divison, like a Gutenberg Bible, European works from the 15th century and before, the first Native American language Bible, old atlases, first edition works by Shakespeare, and much more. However, this room is not open to the public and only available to researchers with prior permission.

Nearby Attractions

The New York Public Library building is situated in the heart of Manhattan and several of the city's most iconic landmarks are all within just a few blocks. The library's "backyard" so to speak is Bryant Park, which feels like a small sanctuary surrounded by the skyscrapers of Midtown. Apart from a casual stroll or a nap on the lawn, there are always events going on in Bryant Park, whether it's summer night movie screenings or the Christmas market and free ice skating in the winter.

The relative serenity of the library and park is even more impressive considering that the mayhem of Times Square is just one block west and the commotion of Grand Central Terminal is one block east. And if you're still looking for more to see, you only need to walk a few blocks either uptown or downtown and you'll run right into Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building, respectively.

Getting There

The main entrance to the library is located at Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 40th streets. The closest subway stations are the Fifth Avenue/Bryant Park station on Line 7 and the 42nd Street/Bryant Park station on Lines B, D, F, or M.

Literary lovers should start their journey at Madison Avenue and 41st Street and walk to the library from there. Not only do you get a full-frontal view of the building's gorgeous facade as you approach, but this block of 41st Street is also dubbed "Library Way" because the cement is filled with plaques featuring quotes from famous writers around the world.

Was this page helpful?