Library Luxury of a Different Sort

The exterior of the Fort Washington library the year it opened, 1914. The top floor windows are for the apartment. (Photo: New York Public Library/Public Domain)

The beautiful Beaux-Arts design of many of the buildings in the New York Public Library system represent only one definition of luxury. The idea of children growing up playing and reading in the stacks at night produces the colorful imaginings of literature where children spend nights in museums, or ramble about in the “tippy-top floor of the Plaza Hotel”.

I’m sure most of us haven’t heard of the custodian apartments that used to grace New York City’s branch libraries, and I for one, am grateful to Atlas Obscura for sharing this curious history.

Inside the New York Public Library’s Last, Secret Apartments

There are just 13 left.

There used to be parties in the apartments on the top floors of New York City’s branch libraries. On other nights, when the libraries were closed, the kids who lived there might sit reading alone among the books or roll around on the wooden library carts—if they weren’t dusting the shelves or shoveling coal. Their hopscotch courts were on the roof. A cat might sneak down the stairs to investigate the library patrons.

When these libraries were built, about a century ago, they needed people to take care of them. Andrew Carnegie had given New York $5.2 million, worth well over $100 million today, to create a city-wide system of library branches, and these buildings, the Carnegie libraries, were heated by coal. Each had a custodian, who was tasked with keeping those fires burning and who lived in the library, often with his family. “The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out,” one woman who grew up in a library told the New York Times. Continue reading

Library Reading Room, Luxury, Legacy


The Rose Reading Room is luxurious in the way that only certain shared spaces can be. Its grandeur attracts its visitors, and is in turn amplified by their presence: the true urban symbiosis. PHOTOGRAPH BY DREW ANGERER / GETTY

It was the room in the photo above where I sat, in the early 1990s, collecting some data for a research project that would eventually become my doctoral dissertation. I had been in that room once or twice in my youth, but as an adult on a specific mission (little did I know the data collected that day would help me develop ideas that we now call entrepreneurial conservation within La Paz Group) the room barely registered in my notice. Except as a very practical place to read some historical documents.

So I am delighted to see that room again after a long time. It looked great to me the last time I saw it. Now I can say wow for different reasons. The legacy of the room is protected, and perhaps renewed for another hundred years. If you click the image and go to a larger viewing with greater detail, you will understand why the word luxury fits in the title of this post on the New Yorker website.

It is not our practice to use the word luxury because it is so laden with old and often inappropriate (considering the ecological condition of the planet, considering advances in socio-economic development, and considering other modern sensibilities) meanings. So we appreciate when others take care in how they use it:



To say that the ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room, at the New York Public Library’s main building, on Fifth Avenue—the biggest room in the biggest public-library branch in the country’s biggest city—is an ornate piece of work is putting it mildly. Continue reading

New York Public Library, At It Again

pd_banner_magnified_3We appreciate the efforts of the New York Public Library, which we have posted on numerous times previously for its innovative as well as its occasionally worrisome institutional changes, to make more of its collection more available to more people for more uses. This blog post by Shana Kimball, Manager of Public Programs and Outreach at NYPL Labs, explaining the value to all of us:

Today we are proud to announce that out-of-copyright materials in NYPL Digital Collections are now available as high-resolution downloads. No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!

The release of more than 180,000 digitized items represents both a simplification and an enhancement of digital access to a trove of unique and rare materials: a removal of administration fees and processes from public domain content, and also improvements to interfaces — popular and technical — to the digital assets themselves. Online users of the NYPL Digital Collections website will find more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content; while more technically inclined users will also benefit from updates to the Digital Collections API enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account. These changes are intended to facilitate sharing, research and reuse by scholars, artists, educators, technologists, publishers, and Internet users of all kinds. All subsequently digitized public domain collections will be made available in the same way, joining a growing repository of open materials. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York

Last time we mentioned this library, it was to raise some important questions; on a previous occasion to recommend a lecture; this time we recommend what looks like an important exhibition curated by Leonard S. Marcus:

The ABC of It is an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how they teach children, and what they reveal about the societies that produced them. Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York April 10

Seth’s third installment is well timed to coincide with an upcoming event covering similar issues (albeit one is an undergraduate’s ornithology student perspective and the other a Harvard superstar entomology professor’s perspective).  Click the image to the left to go to the New York Public Library’s invitation to visit with one of our favorite scientists.  Click here to read more about his upcoming book (and view the three short videos at the bottom of the front page when you click through).  The promo for the event at NYPL says: Continue reading

Opening Doors

Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division/ The New York Public Library, via Columbia University

The New York African Free School was established November 2, 1787, seventy-eight years before slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the fact that slavery was considered “crucial to the prosperity and expansion of New York”, groups such as the New York Manumission Society were established that advocated for African Americans and abolition.

Certainly ahead of its time, the school was co-educational, teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography equally to children of both slaves and free men. Vocational skills were taught as well; the boys were offered astronomy and cartography, skills needed by seamen, and the girls learned sewing and knitting. Continue reading