Apr 25 2016 2:00pm

The Wonders of the 42nd Street Library

Read this exclusive guest post about the wonders of the 42nd Street Library by Con Lehane, author of Murder at the 42nd Street Library, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the book!

The New York Public Library’s flagship building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now known as the Schwarzman Building, houses the NYPL’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library. To millions of New Yorkers, it’s known as the 42nd Street Library, as surely as The Avenue of the Americas is Sixth Avenue.

The magnificent beaux arts edifice, carved out of 530,000 cubic feet of white Vermont marble, sits atop of what was once the Croton Reservoir. The library came about when one-time New York governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886) bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to "establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” In the early 1890s, a Tilden trustee devised a plan to combine two existing private libraries—those of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox—and the Tilden Trust to form The New York Public Library. The deal was signed and agreed upon on May 23, 1895.

Sixteen years later, more than one million books were set in place for the official dedication of the Library on May 23, 1911 at a ceremony that was presided over by President William Howard Taft. The following morning, when New York's first public library officially opened its doors, between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors streamed through the building. They’re still coming. Millions of scholars, browsers, and tourists visit the library each year.

The 42nd Street Library now houses some 15 million items, among them priceless medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, contemporary novels and poetry, as well as baseball cards, dime novels, and comic books. The Rose Main Reading Room on the third floor is 78 feet wide, 297 feet long, and 51 feet high, with forty-two white oak tables, each seating up to 16 readers. Beneath the reading room, seven floors of stacks hold 88 miles of shelf space, with an additional 37 miles of shelving in the two-level stack extension under Bryant Park.

The library lions guarding the library’s front steps were unveiled at the dedication of the library. (At the time, Teddy Roosevelt wanted buffalo statues.). They were later named Patience and Fortitude by New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s.

The Library’s Holdings Include:

  • A 1493 unique copy of Columbus’s letter announcing his discovery of the New World.
  • A cuneiform tablet dating from 2050 B.C. may document the oldest real estate transaction on record—the sale of a house in Sumer.
  • A letter from a dying John Keats to Fanny Brawne. “My dearest girl…I am glad there is such a thing as the grave. The world is too brutal for me…I wish that I was either in your arms full of faith or that a thunderbolt would strike me.”
  • An authoritative version of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Paradoxes, and other works of prose and poetry, written in the hand of his close friend Rowland Woodward.
  • The world’s largest manuscript holdings of Virginia Woolf and W.H. Auden.
  • The Esdaile Notebook, a holograph copybook containing 56 or 57 early fair copies of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one or two probably by Harriet Shelley, the poet's first wife.
  • Poems, notebooks, and correspondence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Leigh Hunt, and Robert Southey, and less numerous but no less noteworthy manuscripts and letters by Robert Burns, Williams Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats.
  • Manuscript materials of British poets and authors Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, H.G. Wells, Vita Sackville-West, Robert Graves, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and others.
  • Manuscript materials of American poets and authors Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot (including the typescript/manuscript of The Waste Land, with Pound’s emendations), Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Julia Alvarez, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, May Sarton, Laura Riding Jackson, Alfred Kazin, Kenneth Koch, Paul Auster, Philip Levine, Terry Southern, and Bruce Jay Friedman and others.

Some of the Writers and Researchers Who Have Used the Collections of the 42nd Street Library

  • Norbert Pearlroth, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! researcher, found all the information for the newspaper feature using the huge collection in the Library’s Main Reading Room. He sat at the same table for 52 years, from 1923 to 1975.
  • Edward Land developed the Polaroid Land Camera and Chester Carlson invented the photocopier through research conducted at the Library.
  • DeWitt Wallace read and condensed articles at the Library that he republished in his magazine Reader’s Digest.
  • Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room.
  • Robert A. Caro spent seven years in the library researching “The Power Broker,” his Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses.
  • E.B. White wrote a poem about the 42nd Street Library entitled, “The Great Reading Room.”
  • Other literary greats like Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E. L. Doctorow, Henry Miller and Alfred Kazin have cited the Rose Reading Room as a key resource for their work.
  • During World War II, Allied military intelligence used the Map Division to research and prepare battle plans.


Surprising Finds at the 42nd Street Library

  • A Gutenberg Bible.
  • The first printing of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Walt Whitman’s personal copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
  • What are purported to be (with two letters of attestation) skull fragments from Percy Bysshe Shelley.
  • Charles Dickens's actual writing desk.
  • Charles Dickens's favorite letter-opener. The handle is the embalmed paw of his beloved cat, Bob, including the claws.
  • Jack Kerouac’s glasses.
  • The original Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends—Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger (the stuffed animals of A. A. Milne).
  • 40,000 restaurant menus, dating from the 1850s to the present. It is heavily used by chefs, novelists, and researchers; a few years ago, a marine biologist consulted menus from the early 1900s for a study of fish populations.


Cool New York Public Library Places to Visit Online

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Murder at the 42nd Street Library Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) April 25, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 2:59 p.m. ET May 2, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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Con Lehane is a mystery writer who lives outside Washington, DC. He's published three previous crime novels featuring New York City bartender Brian McNulty. Over the years, he has worked as a college professor, a union organizer, a labor journalist, and has tended bar at two dozen or so drinking establishments.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Todd Henson
1. thedelfrog
This should be a good one. I love stories about books, libraries, book stores, etc. They found skull fragments from Percy Bysshe Shelley? That sounds like the beginning of story right there!
2. maryc
Love visiting the New York Public Library whenever I'm in town.
Gordon Bingham
3. gordonbingham
NY Public Library is one of my favorite places...
Marie-Louise Molloy
4. Wezzie
Born & raised in Manhattan! Lover of mysteries, this is a MUST read & WIN!
Michelle Reynolds
I recently read a book called Christmas at Tiffany's where the main character had a chance to sit at Dicken's writing desk and read a first edition of A Christmas Carol. That would be a dream come true for me. Thanks for the chance to win!
Sharon Haas
8. kazul
I love reading everything that has anything to do with NYC!
Ruth F
9. piedmontgirl
Libraries are magical places. I still remember the day I got my first library card at the age of 6. I love visiting libraries and reading about them.
10. fran pillersdorf
I have spent many happy hours at the libary
love the lions
11. Halil Cakir
What a great library. Next time I will visit there and smell old books.
Darlene Slocum
12. darandsam
Thanks for the chance to read about the library. The book sounds like one you won't want to put down.
Tad Ottman
13. tottman
This looks really interesting. Love to give it a read!
Laurent Latulippe
14. krag48
I'm looking forward to reading this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
15. Windycindy
Hi, Reading this article, was like reading a historically true novel... The 42nd Street Library is now going on my bucket list of places to see and experience!
Many thanks, Cindi
16. Richard Fohrenbach
Love NYC and this library
pearl berger
17. beach
This novel sounds captivating and unique. Thanks.
ellie lewis
18. italia
A mystery with a wonderful library setting. Perfect.
Gwen Ellington
22. mamadonie02
Anything having to do with a library thrills me. I volunteer at one and take my 4-year-old great niece to another twice a week.
23. aremcy
What better setting for a book lover than this library with its treasure trove?
Barbara Bibel
24. bbibel
I can't wait to read this. The42nd Street library is one of my favorite places.
Dorothy Young
25. Yvonne
I've visited this library when I was in New York. I'm sorry the buffalo weren't installed because we have two buffalo statues at the entrance to the stairs in our legislative building in Manitoba, Canada.
The Library will be a great setting for this book! I can hardly wait to read it's!
26. Seana
Terrific article. Loved the links to additional online sites, too.

Poor Keats, though.
Portia Asher
27. pixie
I love to read and I love to learn. A library like this is the ultimate pleasure for an old lady (84) like me.
Alyson Widen
28. Sunnymay
Impressive library guarded by lion statue with paws crossed. You know just looking at the building that it houses a lot of treasures accumulated over the years. I think libraries are areas of importance for all and that when they're open, the exchange of information both in & out is astounding.
Janice Santillo
30. themommazie
I would love to have a chance to explore this library AND read the book too!
susan beamon
31. susanbeamon
Librarys are treasure houses, worth more than all the jewels and precious metals put together.
Vernon Luckert
32. vl4095
Have never visited the NYC library, but it sounds to be quite an interesting place. I suspect that a murder story surrounding this place would be a good read.
Mary Hopper
33. CarvingGal
Love the information that was shared in this post. I definitely must get this book, adding it to my TBR list!
Joseph Skidmore
35. skidz
I have visited the NYC Library, many times as a teen in the mid to late 60's, I really do miss my time spent looking over so many different books and treasures of the past.
Clydia DeFreese
36. clydia
I don't remember reading a mystery that takes place at the library. I'm looking forward to this one. Thanks for the opportunity.
Lorena Keech
37. llkee
Restaurant menus, who knew? I think it would be amazing to look at them.
Bonnie Karoly
39. grobiemum
That's a beautiful library. I need to visit there the next time I'm in New York. I'm also fascinated by some of the things kept there besides books.
Peter W. Horton Jr.
41. mosaix
I live in New York and the library is a great place! I need this book! Yes!
Joyce Mitchell
42. JoyceLm
I'm a retired librarian & I love library mysteries. Thanks for the chance to win.
43. JoshN
Wow, the library has some really neat artifacts I would love to see. It sounds more like a museum than a library.
Megan Brett
44. mebrett
I got to do some undergrad research at that library! I really need to get back someday.
John Clark
45. sennebec
I have a NYPL t-shirt with the lions on it and wear it proudly.
46. Georgia
Can't wait to read this book!
47. browsermix
The New York Public Library is the best!
48. njgrl4evr
I spent 7 years going to school and working in NYC. The 42nd St library was a favorite place to go. As much a museum as a library.
49. Gail Coulson
Looking forward to reading Murder at the 4th Street Library!
carole pozmanter
50. CaroleP
I read a great review about this book awhile ago and have been watching for it . I work at a library and love mysteries. What a great combination!
Plus, what setting could be better than the New York Public Library.
51. RD
The 42nd Street Library is probably my favorite place to go to when I'm in New York. Besides being a gorgeous building -- love those lions -- it holds many treasures within it. It is such a special place for me. Can't wait to get back there again!
Lisa Garrett
52. lag123
I loved reading these facts about the 42nd Street Library!
Catherine Myers
53. ktpotat
Interesting objects found at the library. I love that they have Charles Dickens writing desk and Jack Kerouac's glasses.All the menus would be fun to read.
54. Paulette Brooks
Love the NYC Public Library as a librarian and as an avid mystery reader. Hope this book is the beginning of a series? Fun to learn that they have a Gutenberg Bible.
Bill Jankun
55. classyjudge
It should be noted that the donor of the library, Samuel J. Tilden, won over 50% of the vote in the 1876 US Presidential Election, but lost the election by ONE electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes, who was nominated by the Republican Convention on the SEVENTH ballot after being in fifth place and way behind in delegaters to the FRONTRUNNER, James G. Blaine, on the FIRST ballot.

Look forward to reading the book!!
Crystal Blackburn
56. lovesmysteries
I love libraries. I look forward to reading this book and would love to win a copy.
Cheryl English
57. RoyalCheryl
Library, take me away with this awesome book.
William Crowe
58. Billc100
All interesting, of course, but surely there are some juicer bits about the library. Maybe in the book?
Michael Carter
60. rubydog
A good library is a gift, but a great library may be beyond description.
You certainly did a fine job of trying.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Janice Milliken
61. msjiva
Hope the mystery is as thrilling as visiting NYC and the 42nd Street library!
Lori Rutherford
63. keirma
I had the pleasure to see this library on my trip to NYC in 2014
Deborah Dumm
64. deb730
I have never been to New York but if I ever get the chance to go this library is going to be at the top of my sight seeing list.
65. Gwendolyn Rainey
Sounds wonderful
66. JudyJudyJudy
Very informative article. I love this library! I'd like to know where the first million books came from.
Tatiana deCarillion
67. decarillion
What a great read, especially for those not familiar with the glories of this fantastic library!
68. LStirling
Really neat to read about the items at the42nd St Library, plus all the literary greats who have utilized it. Sounds like this is the perfect setting for a mystery!
Blythe Jackson
69. starbreeze
I pass this library often, yet I have never ventured inside. I never knew they had these things there! Thanks for the info.
vickie dailey
70. kidcurry
reading about it is probably as close as I will come to what sounds like a really cool place to hang out - love a good mystery
Laura McDonald
71. bonnieclyde
A very intriguing setting for a murder. There must be an unlimited number of nooks and crannies, and obviously a ghost or two.
Suzanne Rorhus
72. Rorhus
Wish I could visit this library - sounds fascinating!
Patrick Murphy
73. Ditch
Visiting this library was one of my favorite things to do in New York City
April Vogel
75. aavogel
I have visited NYC 4 times and have never been to the 42nd Street Library! I would love to visit this library on my next trip to NYC.
Kyle Johnson
76. kylecar94
Such a cool and historic building. It should make for a excellent backdrop for a murder mystery.
Lucinda Larson
77. JohnsJane
So much history in this library that I didn't know. The book will have to be great!
Sally Schmidt
78. bigcootie
I love my little local library, but this - wow.
Sandy Klocinski
79. attea2d
Looks like a good read. I love mysteries. Thanks for the chance to win!
Tawney Mazek
80. tmaze
The plot of this book certainly sounds interesting - although it sounds as though I may resort to of maps of NYC (please don't throw me in the briar patch). And thanks for the links in this article- I can go exploring.
81. alan sturm
New York Library.....What Else.
Sheila Cohen
82. sheilaco
Wow, I had no idea about the history of this library. The book sounds very interesting. I would love to read it.
charles j hauser jr
84. admiral
Books like this remind me of the great B mystery movies of the 30's and 40's. I can never get enough of them and I'll be sure to check this book out 0f the library as well
james geraghty
85. jimmy1964
i hope it is a good story i want to win a copy
Sharon Shumway
87. Shellen
The 42nd Street Library was one of the best places I visited in NYC. I would love to win MURDER AT THE 42ND STREET LIBRARY and can't wait to read it.
88. leftyonkey
It's a dream of mine as a travel advisor to offer a literary tour in NYC. The library on 42nd would surly be a stop.
Laurence Coven
89. Holmes
Books, Libraries, and Mysterys--no combination is better for bodies and sleuthing.
Jane Schwarz
90. Janeschwarz
All libraries are great. Big and small, magnificent in architecture or a small books-on-wheels van, it is so nice to hold a book in the hand and journey out of time and space. Great giveaway, thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.
91. Suzanne51
Just testing to see what color my name is!
Wilifred Alire
92. walire
Can't wait to read about this librarian and reluctant sleuth Raymond Ambler. Also enjoyed looking at the Cool New York Library places.
Jud Hanson
93. trekie70
Looks like an interesting book. It will be added to my infinitely growing TBR pile.
94. fritter
I visited this library last time I was in NYC. It is beautiful. Book looks good.
Sandra Slack
95. mz.pembroke
Sounds like a very good book to curl up with on a rainy day.
Susan Robinette
96. susanrob
I love libraries -- my favorite one growing up was the main branch of the Boston Public Library. I'd love to win a copy of this book -- thanks for the opportunity.
97. Stella Morado-Cahue
I've been to the library and taken the tour. I loved the building, the paintings, the rooms, even the old water fountain were so elegant! Would enjoy reading a book with this setting!
Michele Baron
98. angel320
I have visited this library several times...absolutely beautiful daughter and I have spent countless hours there when she was younger
Tammy Z Evans
99. tzevans
I would love to read this, the 42nd street library is my favorite! I live on 34th street so it is "my library"
100. rich bar
i love the library and the lions!
101. Sally Toerner
My two favorite things: a mystery and a library!!
102. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
105. Peg Nitskoff
Most definitely interested!
Melissa Keith
106. melly801
My jaw dropped while reading 'Surprising Finds'. I would love to visit this library. But I'd want to stay overnight! OK, so I'd have to take at least a week to explore. :-)
Mallory Bailey
107. mallorybailey1
I would love to read this! Sounds like a good mystery :)
johnna smith
This library is on my bucket list!! I love all the wonderful things associated with this particular place. Thanks for the chance
110. Kirsten Irwin
I'm very excited to read this book! What a great idea; the library is such an interesting setting!
111. SherryKaroke
My dream library. Maybe someday I can visit and not just read about it.
Sherry Schwabacher
112. sherrykaraoke
My dream library. Maybe someday I can visit and not just read about it.
Linda Peters
114. linnett
I go to my local library every month to stock up, thanks for the chance
115. Sallyw
This library would definitely be on my list of places to visit if I came to New York. It holds so many treasures. As a child, my favorite places to visit were our local main library, local zoo, and local art museum.
Amy Baldwin
119. AmyLiz84
I dearly love any library, this one I'd never want to leave. And to visit NYC at the same time, never been there!
Rhonda Stefani
121. RStefani72
I absolutely Love mysteries focused on the incredible New York Library! Being a born New Yorker, holds an extra special place in my heart! Most important, there's no other place in the world like this magnificent building. Would give anything to win a copy of this book to add to my personal library! ?
125. sabina Edwards
wow, looks like such a good read. I'l lhave to add this to goodreads and amazon wish list
Barbara Fish
126. Barb Fish
I love to read books set in places that I have actually visited. I hope I win this book!
Jerry Marquardt
130. versatileer
I would like to read this interesting book. Thanks for featuring this in a giveaway.
Cindy Hipolito
131. mysuccess
Glad I caught your email about the giveaway of this book using the 42nd Street Library as a backdrop for the story. I would love to win a copy of this book. Happy early Monday am.
Lily Kwan
133. lilyk
Thanks for the great giveaway!
Buddy Garrett
134. garrettsambo
I would love to read this book. It sounds interesting. Thanks.
peter gladue
135. peterg201
What a wonderful and interesting mystery concept
Shannon Parker
136. 07violet
This sounds like it would be an interesting book to read.
Jeana Keller
138. StuffSmart
It is amazing how much history the NY library holds. I hope to visit someday. Adding this book to my reading list.
Jim Belcher
139. librarypops
Been there, took the tour (dragged out by wife), and have the T-shirt (really). Too bad the librarians of NYC have to spend so much time battling the bad guys to keep them from ruining this building and destroying history. It is an awesome place!
Pattie Anderson
140. pattiea
It's such a beautiful building, and all teh more amazing because of the treasures housed inside.
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