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Waxing Literary: Buzzing around the stacks

Posted Tuesday, May 20th, 2008 at 10:18 am by Kat in Cultural Bees. More in 10018

The New York Public Library has always inspired awe amongst visitors to New York. Those huge stone lions! That sprawling façade! That scene in Breakfast At Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn convinces George Peppard to sign the first edition of his book whilst the librarian angrily squawks, “You can’t do that!” It’s even the supposed site of choice for Carrie’s wedding in the upcoming SATC movie.

But based on an informal survey of my friends — New Yorkers, all — it appears that the city’s natives tend to ignore the New York Public Library, preferring instead to hang about in back of the building and pound Bud Light with dudes at the Bryant Park bar.

This is a mistake, and not just because the guys who hang out at that bar are slimy.

Complaints about the NYPL tend to follow the same thread: that it’s too difficult to get books. And it’s true that the current must-reads tend to disappear for months on end as soon as they’re released (meaning that those who reserve December’s bestseller du jour will get a phone call the following July letting them know that the book is now available. Gee, thanks, Library.)

But for a literary experience that doesn’t include the latest by Dan Brown, you can’t get a more stunning backdrop. Here, a few ways to enjoy your time in that glorious beaux-arts building, no six-month wait required.

1) Historic New York: let your fingers do the walking.

Okay, you can’t actually touch them. But with a collection of maps dating from as early as the 1600s, you can see New York evolving from its humble beginnings (when Orchard Street, unbelievably, led to an actual orchard ) to its current state of uber-development — complete with lower Manhattan’s man-made shoreline and obnoxiously high rents in Tribeca.

2) Ride the tubes.

Books requested in the library’s main research area — the soaring, ornate-ceilinged Rose Reading Room — travel through 8 stories of pneumatic tubes before being placed in your hot little hands. Take advantage of the hundred year-old system to get informed about a topic of your choice… OLD SCHOOL, the way it was before Wikipedia. Just pick something — Joan of Arc, the War of 1812, the history of women’s underwear — submit your request, and settle in for an hour or so of self-education under the reading room’s chiaroscuro sky.

3) Learn new skills… such as “how to take care of your shit.”

The library’s programming is extremely varied — everything from toddler read-alouds at neighborhood branches to lectures by some of the city’s most erudite literary figures at the big Fifth Avenue library . Tonight at 5pm, join some preservation experts in that building’s South Court Classrooms to learn about caring for books, photographs, and other personal items (like your award-winning second grade essay about hot dogs, which, after twenty years in an old folder, is starting to yellow around the edges.) After all, some of the most precious things in life still aren’t digital.

For more information about the New York Public Library’s collection, history and programming, visit

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