On the west side of Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 40th streets you’ll pass a monumental staircase flanked by two marble lions, Patience and Fortitude. They are the unofficial greeters to the New York Public Library and were named by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia back in the 1930s for the qualities he wished New Yorkers to demonstrate. The city seems to have collectively rejected the first and embraced the other.
The lions are both proud and welcoming, as befits one of the world’s great knowledge institutions, and they beckon passersby to come in and wander through marble hallways and handsome exhibition galleries to admire rare volumes, maps, prints, and photographs from the vast collections. The Rose Main Reading Room is furnished with 42 long oak tables and comfortable chairs, and warmly lit by tall windows, glowing chandeliers, and brass reading lamps. If you fill out a call slip, one of the library’s 10 million volumes will be delivered to your seat from the 128 miles of shelves that wrap through the cellars and beneath adjacent Bryant Park. It’s also nice just to sit back and take in the surroundings, appreciating the fact that a great city like New York has a fine library like this in its midst.
Bryant Park, behind the library, is one of New York’s smaller but most appreciated public arenas. Throughout the year, a jaunty carrousel revolves to the sound of French cabaret music. In the winter, skaters glide across a skating rink; in the summer, office workers splay themselves on the lawns to steal a few moments in the sun, and filmgoers gather in the evenings to lie back and enjoy outdoor screenings.