Les Bibliotheque. Or in English, the Library. A place to broaden your mind. A place where you can travel the world without ever leaving the building.
For all kinds of interests, New York City is the center of the world. So the library culture of the city needs to reflect that. And it does.
The culture is not limited to just the public system, although the NYPL is one of the best systems in the world. There are many privately owned or operated libraries which are home to rare and prized research materials of interest to all different kinds.
Yes, Libraries aren’t just for books anymore. They are places of culture where you can explore a multitude of horizons. In the following article, learn about all the best libraries in New York City, public and private.
Discovering The NYPL
The NYPL is the free library system for the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island.
The libraries of the New York City Public Library system are one of the treasures of the city, built into the fabric of city life and free to everyone. Each branch possesses a personality of its own, housed inside structures of all kinds and architectural varieties.
They are both free-standing and tucked into building fronts. They all have their own names, often with reference to the area where they are.
There is even a branch literally in the subway, at the 51st and Lexington Avenue stop, on the level between the platform and the street — the Cathedral Branch — which is the smallest but possibly the mightiest of them all.
The Three Best Branches in Manhattan
- Bryant Park – the main library at Bryant Park is a magnificent building inside and out. Two famous stone lions by the names of Patience and Fortitude greet you at the entrance and one of the benefits of being located in Bryant Park is the open air reading room.
- Grand Central Library – Located near the famous terminal of the same name, this branch offers a convenient location for many residents. Like many other NYPL branches, Grand Central offers all kinds of extra literary services, like workshops, computer access and even English as a Second Language, or ESL, classes. Free, to boot. Maybe one of the last free things in the city. And it hosts a Book Club.
- Mid-Manhattan Branch – Located at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, this branch houses five floors of books and dvds on every subject imaginable and in many, many languages! A real jewel of the system. It also houses one of the last remaining “circulating collections” in the world.
Even More Interesting Public Libraries
Some public libraries are found inside notable landmarks of the city and focus on specific subjects of interest.
They include the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, found at Lincoln Center at Lincoln Square in upper midtown west. Also on the Upper West Side, near Central Park, you can visit the Natural History Research Library, inside the massive and spellbinding Museum of Natural History.
In Midtown West also rests the Rose Library branch, renowned for its comfortable and pleasant Reading Room.
Another great public library on the Upper West Side is the St. Agnes branch, which offers many, many courses for adults, children and teens, including a citizenship study group and YA novel study.
The Main Branch Of The Library Tree
The Main Library branch is called by the name of Steven Schwarzmann. A hop, skip and a jump across the street from the aforementioned Mid-Manhattan Branch, it is considered the Central branch of the NYPL system. It was renamed for the philanthropist after his one hundred million donation financed a large scale renovation in 2011.
This is the branch you may have seen in a number of famous Hollywood films, including -da da da da da da- who ya gonna call- “Ghostbusters”, and even on the tv series “Seinfeld”! It’s registered as a historic landmark, having opened its doors in May of 1911. Sometimes you can catch live concerts there.
The Mulberry Street Branch is located downtown in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. It occupies three floors of a former chocolate factory. Appropriately, it offers many children’s activities. Definitely the family branch!
Also downtown is the Braille library, formally known as the Andrew Haiskell branch, where materials like talking books are offered for the hearing impaired, and braille editions for the blind.
The Roosevelt Island branch is technically a Manhattan branch but offers easy and quick access from Queens.
In The Bronx, the best branch is the Kingsbridge Library.
Important to note about the NYPL is that you can always find a branch in close proximity to say, a doctor’s appointment or a meeting in a particular vicinity. And you can return items to any branch – you don’t have to trek to the branch you borrowed the materials from.
The system has inter-library agreements so you can reserve a book from any branch, simply by asking one of the helpful librarians who are always ready to assist you. So it’s very, very convenient. The only fees are for irresponsibly not returning your items on time, and that’s on you!
The remaining two boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, have their own library systems, independent but modeled on the NYPL system.
For example, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens has three branches alone, which offer both convenience and a wider selection of books and DVDs. The Elmhurst Branch is usually cited as the best branch in the borough of Queens.
Brooklyn, a borough with its own inimitable and renowned style, offers an eclectic mix at it’s libraries.
The Central Library is Brooklyn’s Home Library and houses the Brooklyn Collection, which is the largest collection of materials about Brooklyn’s rich cultural heritage and unique flavor.
The Brooklyn Public Library doesn’t stop at just reading about music. They encourage you to create your own by also lending musical instruments – an essential need of the community.
Brooklyn is also a progressive community. So if you want to read some comic books, that oft-scoffed at by the literati illustrated medium, head over to Carroll Gardens where you can find Loot. Not an NYPL branch. More like a club. It’s an independent, subscription-based comic book lending library.
They won’t make fun of you for trying to have a little fun with pictures. They acknowledge that comic books have matured into a highly-evolved art form. They offer classes for kids in the art form as well.
You could reasonably argue that all libraries are educational, but hey, so are the streets of New York City itself. However, some of the renowned educational institutions of New York City offer their own collections of informative materials.
Columbia University Library is the heart of the intellectual bodies that make up the Columbia ecosystem. The Library often hosts collections geared toward current events of interest.
NYU has a massive library. It’s the six story tall Elmer Holmes Bobst building in Washington Square, in the general vicinity of NYU’s scattered campus. It houses a center for music and media and often features special collections also. It’s part of a larger NYU library network that includes a Law Library.
The world famous Museum of Metropolitan Art also has an archive library intended for research and learning. It includes exhibitions as well as Latino and Latin American Art.
Building A Prettier Library
Some libraries in New York City are worth visiting just to take a gander at the magnificent architecture of the design.
The Academy of Medicine is one of them. The Academy was founded in 1847 and opened its doors to the public in 1878. It is probably the most significant historical archive of public health, informing the future through the heritage of the past. Many of the collections offer historical insight into scientific and medical outbreaks and breakthroughs of recent centuries.
Jefferson Market in the Greenwich Village neighborhood on the Lower West Side is part of the NYPL system. It used to be a courthouse building and jumps out like a medieval castle amongst it’s otherwise urban surroundings.
Finally, there are many independent libraries worth noting which are found throughout the city and outlying boroughs. This is because the world’s best and brightest come to New York City, and the materials they leave behind often end up in these libraries.
Here is a quick overview of the venerable independent institutions worth checking out.
Morgan Library is named for JP Morgan, one of the most legendary philanthropists in American History. It was originally his private library and now you can see Michaelangelo paintings and read original John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens manuscripts there.
Frick Art Library is primarily a museum known for its extensive collection and focus on Dutch painters. But it also has a library extension with a comprehensive collection of books about art for the scholarly mind.
The Smithsonian Design Library is as dazzling as it’s sister namesake, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Sponsored by Hewitt-Cooper, you must make an appointment to visit this Library, where you can find in-depth materials on the art of design.
The New York Society Library is New York’s oldest library, offering peace and quiet and cozy reading. It’s a members club, but guests are welcome. Be sure to check the requirements before heading over. Find out how this library feels like a spy movie!
The Center For Fiction’s new location in Brooklyn is a charming combination of coffee house, library and book shop all rolled into one. Membership gives you the privilege of raiding the lending library.
Finally, downtown on Murray Street in Battery Park City, a place for poetry! The Poets House is a literary center devoted to rhymes and rhythm from iambic pentameter to swingin’ beat poetry. The space is designed to encourage creativity, whether you are studying the greats or writing your own masterpiece.
One last place worth mentioning is in the unofficial sixth borough known as Harlem. The comfortingly-named Grandma’s Place is a great place to take the kids. The owner, a former teacher, has handpicked every book to promote active learning and creativity in children.
So much more to say about all these places and many, many others, but better you go see for yourself. Explore the wide world of libraries in New York City and they will transport you to a whole new and even wider world than you could have ever known existed.
Native New Yorker. Travel addict. Hardcore thinker. Analyst. Pop culture fanatic. I live in Queens with my wife Linda and our dog Clemenza.