New York Public Library at 100

formerly published in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

New York Public Library at 100

I grew up surrounded by books at home and at the college library where my mom worked. My little brother and I would play hide and seek in between towering rows of books, trying not to laugh too hard or shriek when one of us found the other. Eventually, we’d get bored and tug at my mom’s arm asking crucial reference questions. (“When’s dinner?” “Can we go home, now?”)

I’ve never forgotten the smell of that library: well-thumbed books, newspapers and magazines, the blur of spines as I ran down the aisles, the whooshing sound of the microfilm. As a child, it would never have occurred to me that I would one day equate that sweeping visual and olfactory sensation with a deep and trusted source of joy.

Which is why I was eager to attend the New York Pubic Library’s Centennial on May 19th, 2011, an event celebrated with a fittingly literary gift to the public—a free collection of photos and essays to be passed on in the spirit of library books.

Through the courtesy of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a Centennial sponsor, 25,000 copies of Know the Past, Find the Future were distributed for free for New Yorkers and visitors to pick them up, read, and pass on to others. Hint to readers: After May 19th, books can be found on city park benches, select bookstores and in all New York Public Library (NYPL) branches.  An online version of the book will be available, as well. To sweeten the deal, eight copies of the book will contain “tickets” that entitle the winners to 25 Penguin Classics, valued at about $400.

Know the Past, Find the Future arose through a partnership between one of the world’s preeminent libraries and the leading publisher of classics in the English-speaking world, Penguin Classics. President and publisher of Penguin Books, Kathryn Court explains that the two institutions “share much in their respective aims and values: the spread of literacy … the fostering of a love of books, the importance of open access to the arts, and the broadening of our horizons.”

In the spirit of open access, through crafted essays and beautiful photos, the creators of Know the Past, Find the Future literally took the book to the streets (the book was left on park benches and subway stations) inviting the public directly into the quiet rooms and world-renowned collections of the New York Public library (William Blake, Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, James Joyce, and Nancy Drew.)

Know the Past, Find the Future celebrates our resplendent collections – free and open to all with curious minds – and embodies the thrill of discovery happening everyday, in every room at the library,” said New York Public Library President Paul LeClerc.

In every room of the library, luminaries reflect on special collections-maps, cuneiform tablets (3rd–2nd millennium B.C.E.), papers, compositions, letters and even, the “real-Winnie-the-pooh.” In his photo, Colbert got teary-eyed as he read original letters from J.D. Salinger. “I suspect this photo would have annoyed J.D. Salinger,” he writes. “Here I am, the stereotypical liberal arts fanboy, going weak over something he typed.”

And the reflections continue page after page. Fran Lebowitz describes her total absorption in Nancy Drew novels as a girl “…the idea of a girl detective, an autonomous figure…and most importantly, a roadster…she could do whatever she wanted, this was incredibly attractive to me.”

On the other hand, Annie Proulx bemoans the loss of tree and plant species while looking through holograph notes of Henry David Thoreau’s’ The Dispersion of Seeds. Yoko Ono thumbs through a book of rare compositions called Notations, edited and published by John Cage, with selections of important musical scores from a variety of mid-twentieth century composers including her own. “Being able to hold the writings and manuscripts belonging to them was such a rare experience. It gave me such a joy.”

Choreographer Bill T. Jones listens to Jesse Fuller’s, “San Francisco Bay Blues.”  Actor James Fenton examines T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” typescript; The Harlem Globetrotters check out globes from the Library’s Map Division; writer Colum McCann looks at a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses; musician Lou Reed discusses a manuscripts page of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Rationale of Verse”; Laurie Anderson and Vartan Gregorian each examine the Declaration of Independence on separate pages of the book.

In Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, a gathering crowd watched the Harlem Globe Trotters spin magic basketballs and a New Orleans jazz band swooned out a festive air until the introductory remarks and final readings of the book began.

“As one of the fundamental public institutions that makes New York one of the world’s great cities, we are proud to be able to support another,” said MTA Chairman Jay H. Walder. “While the MTA provides physical transportation, the library has allowed generations of New Yorkers to move mind and spirit…[it] is not only abundantly equipped with over 60 million items but represents the most democratic institution in the nation, if not world. Anyone from any country can get off a plane and walk in the library’s doors without any identification at all.”

Kathryn Court, President and Publisher of Penguin Classics fell in love with the library on her first visit to New York in the early seventies. “It left a very strong impression on me, partly because the building was so beautiful, but more importantly because it was a truly democratic institution, open to anyone who wanted to read, to study, to write.” In Court’s essay, she notes that the New York Public Library houses the Berg Collection, home to a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623. “It’s hard to describe my feelings on opening that volume containing thirty-six of the most brilliant plays ever written…”

National Book Award winner Colum McCann read from his essay, “Ineluctable Modality of the Visible” about the copy of Ulysses with which he was photographed. “I didn’t even get to touch the pages, I leaned over them, breathed them in. The ineluctable modality of the visible.” McCann continues that after the book was put away, he noticed that a tiny blue flake fell from the pages and “…I did what any heartsick lovesick booksick wordsick worldsick Joycesick fool would do. I ate it.”

Actress and Singer, Martha Plimpton took us on a pop culture tour through Beadle’s Dime Novels, “Some people might tend to look down on pop culture, or else appreciate it with a sort of phony irony. But we all secretly love it in a sort of queasy, visceral way that some of us like to vivisect in public. Pop shows us our lives as we are living them.”

Writer and Performer, Wesley Stace read from his essay about J.R. Ackerlay’s My Dog Tulip. “My Dog Tulip is considered one of the great dog books. It is much more,” writes Stace. “It must certainly be the best book that is both entirely about dogs and not about dogs at all, but about love and desire, and the terrible cost of their denial.”

In his introduction to the book, Paul LeClerc asked “How does one even begin to capture the contribution to culture and to civil society that a century’s worth of readers here have made because of our collections and staff expertise.?”

Conceived by Caro Llewellyn, director the 100th anniversary New York Public Library celebrations, (previous director of PEN World Voices festival) the book captures the thrill of sitting in a room with the literary progeny of so many enduring thinkers. Long after their death, their ideas remain alive.

From the cuneiform tablets of vanished civilizations to original plays of Shakespeare. From the Declaration of Independence to the early drafts of novelists and poets–the records of so many human triumphs found protector and publicist alike inside the New York Public Library’s walls–an impressive segment of which is interpreted anew in the firsthand experiences of one hundred notable modern figures.

Photographer, Beowulf Sheehan brought gifted portraiture and respect for each moment to the photos. “I was blessed to have the opportunity to see so many wonderful and talented New Yorkers touched by the things within the walls of The New York Public Library,” Sheehan muses. “The things that touched them are the same things that can touch you. You, too, can connect to your own history, learn about your community and family, discover those who share and inform your professional passion, and be inspired.  All you need is a library card.”

For more information: Know the Past, Find the Future is part of the Library’s Centennial festivities, which officially begins May 20, 2011.  It will include an exhibition, programming for kids and adults, mapping and genealogy workshops, building and Stack tours, performances by Elevator Repair Service, a live rehearsal by New York Classical Theatre and many other exciting free events to celebrate the building’s 100th birthday. For more information, please visit

Note: Penguin Classics has generously underwritten the publication of Know the Past, Find the Future. Additional support for the Library’s Centennial Festival has been made possible through an endowment established by family and friends of the late Richard B. Salomon, and by Bank of America, The Skeel Fund, MetLife Foundation, The Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Asprey, Wells Fargo, Celeste Bartos, The Wall Street Journal, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Titan, WABC-TV/Channel 7, Penguin Classics, Engine Yard, and Gotham Magazine.