New York Public Library - History and Facts | History Hit

New York Public Library

New York, United States

Lily Johnson

08 Feb 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About New York Public Library

The New York Public Library, also known as Main Branch, is both a hub for studious activity and an atmospheric tourist destination, due to its towering stacks of books and impressive structure. Today one of New York’s key sites, it acts as the flagship for a vast library system spanning all over the city. 

New York Public Library history 

In 1895, plans to build the enormous Main Branch of the New York Public Library were agreed upon. The resources of the existing Astor and Lenox libraries were combined, with added funds from the Tilden Trust, whose benefactor Samuel J. Tilden had bequeathed $4 million in his will for the establishment of a free public library in the city. 

When construction began in 1902, it was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. Plans for its main reading room included 7 floors of stacks, and the fastest book retrieval system in the world. By 1906 the grand exterior was completed, following which a total of 75 miles of shelves were fitted inside to house its initial collection of 1 million books, and the library was opened on 24 May, 1911.

The library’s iconic marble lions sit outside the library, reportedly so that patrons could ‘read between the lions’. In the 1930s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named them ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Patience’, two attributes he believed New Yorkers would need to get them through the gruelling Great Depression. 

The Library today 

Today the New York Public Library Main Branch is home to 2.5 million volumes in its stacks, and is still the flagship of the entire institution that now stretches to a total of 92 locations. A number of its stunning rooms may be visited, including the Rose Main Reading Room, now a designated landmark which features vast columns and archways, chandeliers that hang from its ornately carved ceiling, and of course, stacks and stacks of books. 

Elsewhere murals, busts and balconies adorn the library, so whether your visit be to explore its collection of fascinating works, or simply marvel at its design, it is a key stop on any trip to New York City. Behind the library also sits Bryant Park, providing a picturesque walk against the building’s imposing exterior.

Getting the New York Public Library

The New York Public Library Main Branch building, officially named the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, is located on 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. 

The closest subway station is 5th Av, a 3-minute walk away, while Grand Central Terminal is an 8-minute walk away. The nearest bus stops are 5 Av/W 41 St and 5 Av/W 42 St, both directly outside the entrance.