|Prudence the lion protects the NYPL.|
It is described as the second-largest public library in the United States, behind the Library of Congress, and the fourth-largest in the world. It is truly a public library, accessible in every important way.
The library originated in the late 1800s after the death of one-time New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who left in his will more than $2 million to create a public library. New York City already had two major libraries, the Astor Library (a reference book holding, with books only to be read onsite) and the Lenox (a rare books collection accessible only with a ticket of admission), but he had in mind combining these libraries with a circulating library.
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The plan for the NYPL was hatched in 1895. More than one million books were made available for private circulation. Some 40,000 visitors showed up on opening day.
Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie later helped fund branch libraries across New York City. Today, the library has 92 locations, holds nearly 53 million items, and serves about 18 million patrons. The main building of the library is watched over by two marble lions named Patience and Fortitude. Sitting on the steps with a book is called "reading between the lions".
Four of the five greatest libraries in the world are in the UK or USA:
- Oxford's Bodleian (the only university library).
- The British Library in London near St. Pancras Station.
- The Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
- The New York Public Library.
Why might it be that four of the five great libraries are in anglophone countries? I think Gutenberg's moveable-type printing press was especially adapted to the heirs to the Greco-Roman language because the European languages are phonetic and based on a relatively small number of component letters. Chinese characters are more complicated and were harder to convert to mechanical printing (computers have made it much easier). Korean and Japanese phonetic characters were relatively late arrivals.
Within Europe, Italy and Germany had common languages but were not unified until the 19th century and therefore didn't have a strong national center for storing and making accessible books. Bottom line, the major factor seems to be the high degree of literacy and the policy decisions made in the USA and UK to make available free libraries, following the success of philanthropic initiatives along these lines.
I'm a big user of the four USA and UK libraries. A month rarely goes by when I am not in one of them or consulting their resources online. Only one is a university library, the Bodleian. It and the British library receive registration copies of all new published books (as do a few other UK libraries).
The Library of Congress is the singular depository of copyrighted books in the USA, but in usage the NY Public Library has nearly ten times the number of visitors of any other library in the world.
My main comment on the difference between the four US and UK libraries and the Bibliothèque Nationale is that one could go into any of the four anglo libraries and generally find something on one's own, without requiring high-level support.
The BnF, however, is built like a fortress to protect its books — without help from the skilled staff one could be lost inside forever.
On one's first visit to Oxford's Bodleian Library (Weston building), the inquiry desk is designed essentially to shuttle you into Admissions at right or admit you to the stacks at left. End of story.
Contrast that with one's first introduction to the BnF. The nice murals and indirect lighting don't veil the message that one is in the hands of bureaucracy from here on, and get used to it. One is given chairs to wait in and you take a number. Then you fill out paperwork. Then you are given instructions for your long walks to the vestiaire, a different place where you will sit, a different place where your books are, and a different place where you order them.
These places in my case were widely scattered. When I first arrived, I walked through several doors that were like submarine or space ship interlocks, and then down a cavernous escalator. The books I needed were at the other end of the huge BnF plaza, a walk I feel sure was a quarter-mile long. I had to go back to the admission office because somehow I had been misclassified. I still have no clue what the problem was but it was very important.
So on my first day at the library, I must have walked a full mile inside the library, from one office to another and back again. As Gen. Pierre Bosquet said of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava: C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.
I was looking for books on French heraldry and found a gap in the books on the shelves. There was no explanation on the shelf for the gap. I went to the desk and they advised me that all the heraldry books were filed together somewhere else completely, in the middle of the aisle, some distance from the shelves where the number order would suggest they would be located.
I started to point out the problem until, as I talked, it dawned on me that I was just exposing to ridicule my simple Anglo-Saxon peasant mind, expecting things to be in the right order instead of appreciating the elegant way the BnF provides special status for les armes. I think you need to buy a new ticket every day you enter the BnF. They provide three of them gratuits. I don't know where or when or why you have to produce these tickets. I fervently hope I never have to go back there to find out.
Postscript (December 22, 2017) – My friend Nigel Armstrong-Flemming writes to me that I should go to the heraldry section at the Paris Municipal Archives, where he found the staff attentive and helpful. Anyone out there with experience with the Archives?
In Washington, DC, use of the National Archives is discouraged by distance. Anything from World War I on is kept in the College Park, Maryland Archive Center.