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This post is about how to take a free tour of the New York Public Library’s main branch building, including tips on how to get here and what you will see. It is an extraordinarily beautiful building, both inside and out, and is not to be missed, even if you only visit to take a picture with one of the iconic marble lions in front.
The Schwartzman Building was dedicated on May 23, 1911, with over 1 million books and 75 miles of shelving put into place for its opening day. It is one of NYC’s iconic Beaux-Arts style marble buildings. Its two marble lions outside the building are recognizable to millions of people. The building is a stop on our Midtown Manhattan Tour and our Manhattan Night Tour. We only include the exterior of the building, but we encourage you to go back and take a free library tour. (See below).
In addition to housing a renowned reference library, the New York Public Library is home to treasures such as a Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s “Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies” from 1623 and Mary Poppins’ umbrella. To learn more history of the Library, check out this podcast on the Library. If you want an in-depth look at the library interior, take advantage of their free guided tours (See below).
TIP: Be sure to learn more money saving ideas with our Guide to NYC on a Budget.
Where is the New York Public Library?
The New York Public Library’s Schwartzman Building is located on 5th Avenue between 42nd Street and 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks away from both Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, and the United Nations Building. We recommend using this Google map to get directions from anywhere in the city. Almost all subway lines have stations near the library.
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How Much Time Will I Spend There:
If you take one of their free tours, give yourself 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The free tour is one hour, but you should arrive early. You might like to spend time after looking around on your own. For the ultimate library experience, you could take the 11 am building tour and the 12:30 pm exhibition tour. So give yourself an additional hour.
If that is a little too much library for you, you can combine a library tour with one of our tours! For a perfect (indoor and cozy!) Sunday during the winter, you could take our 10 am Grand Central Terminal Tour, have a leisurely lunch, and then head over to the library for the 2 pm building tour. Another option is to take the 11 am library building tour before one of our 2 pm Midtown Manhattan Tours! (See our calendar for days/times).
Some Things to Know When Visiting the Library
The NYPL offers FREE one-hour guided tours of the Schwartzman Building. The tours, given by volunteer docents, run every day but Sundays.
All tours meet at the Information Desk in the Astor Hall. Astor Hall is the main entry point on the library, and the Information Desk is off to the left, just past the left set of stairs.
Tip: Tours are limited to 25 people and are available on a first come basis. Be sure to arrive early at the meeting spot to ensure you can be included in the tour.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE:
Patience and Fortitude
These are the two great lions that greet you on the library stairs. These marble statues were added in 1911 and at first, were both named Leo – fitting for a lion. But they were given different last names: Astor and Lenox, the two co-founders of the Library. During the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed Leo Lenox and Leo Astor. Their new names were Patience and Fortitude. The renaming was meant to remind people of the traits they’d need to make it through the financial hardship of the era.
When you enter the library you will be in this stunning white marble entryway named for the wealthy and prominent Astor family. Once the richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, passed away in 1848 and dedicated a huge sum of money to establish the Astor Library, a free public library, the first public library in NYC. In 1985 the Astor Library merged with the New York Public Library.
The Rose Main Reading Room
This is one of the largest interior spaces in the whole city. It is almost as long as two city blocks. It contains 42 oak tables that can accommodate over 600 readers and 40,000 reference books line its walls. Its gilded ceiling is 52 feet high! Besides being beautiful, lush and vast, the room also has free Wi-Fi making it a destination for any researchers and academics. The room is well-known for being the location of one of most memorable scenes in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters“. (If you are a Ghostbusters fan, see our Top Ten Ghostbusters Locations post.)
With its dark walnut paneling and a vaulted ceiling, the Rotunda is a perfect locale for the sumptuous murals on its walls and ceiling. The murals are named “The Story of the Recorded Word,” and do indeed tell this story. The most well-known mural depicts Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, holding a page from his famous Bible, which was the first book to be printed using the printing press. In the Rotunda, you can see a Gutenberg Bible — one of only 49 existing copies in the world!
Map Collection Room
Of course the room is impressive, but what is more impressive is that it is one of the largest public collection of maps in the world! For starters, there are 10,000 maps of New York City alone!
In addition to the building tours, the library offers FREE one-hour guided docent tours of their temporary exhibits. The exhibits are quite specialized and exciting as you will be able to see rare items not otherwise on display.
WHEN: Monday-Saturday: 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm, Sunday: 2:00 pm (Note: the library is closed on Sundays in July and August). Tours are limited to 25 people, on a first come basis, so be sure to arrive a bit before the tour times.
WHERE: Tours meet at the entrance to Gottesman Hall. To get there, enter the library at the 5th Avenue main entrance, walk straight, passing through Astor Hall and you will find Gottesman Hall.
WHAT’S ON: Click here to see what the current exhibition is.
Now through Sept 1, 2018: You Say You Want A Revolution: Remembering the 60s
Timothy Leary’s notes on his experiences with psychedelic drugs; Tom Wolfe’s notes about Haight-Ashbury for his book The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test; Gloria Steinem’s letter to The New York Times‘ Abe Rosenthal; John Updike’s opinion on the Vietnam War.
Note: Special exhibits are offered at other branches of the New York Public Library system. For example, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture always has excellent exhibitions. It is included in our pay-what-you-like Harlem Tours.
If you were wondering how the librarians handle requests from patrons who put in a “call slip” asking for a particular book from among the collection of over 1.5 million books, well, prior to 2016, the book was retrieved from the stacks of the Reading Room and the huge space beneath the Rose Main Reading Room.
After a two year renovation, a new book retrieval system was put into place. Here’s a video of the adorable and highly efficient electric trolley system, in which books can be sent off to reading rooms upstairs in a fairly quick manner.