Although it might be obvious to those with lots of experience, I wanted to write a user-friendly “first-timer’s guide” for non-New-Yorkers about getting started using the rare books holdings at the New York Public Library, which I was able to do during a recent visit to the city. For nascent scholars, it could be a surprise to learn that even if you are not a New Yorker, you have options for access. The Schwarzman Building (the main library branch with the lions) is a huge, beautiful landmark in midtown Manhattan — it’s frequently full of tourists in the main areas, and you can’t blame them, it’s absolutely stunning visually — but it is also a working research library with some world-famous holdings. 

The Main Branch of the New York Public Library: The Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (Click to access via Google Maps)

For anyone who might wonder how to do this on a visit to New York, here’s what I did: (To be fair, I had used this library’s rare books archive once before while completing my MA thesis, so I was not a true beginner.) 

First, it’s probably obvious, but it’s absolutely essential to respect all of the guidelines for use of materials and be as quiet as possible so as not to distract your fellow researchers while working. If you have questions about what to do, the staff is very helpful.

  1. From home, apply online for a library card. Keep track of your username, PIN, and the temporary barcode number you’ll be given. You will have to show up in person with photo ID to finalize your account, but the majority of the process is completed online, so it was pretty quick in person: I’d say 5 minutes? I went near closing time on the first day I was in town, so perhaps it was a low-rush time of day.
  2. From home, locate items of interest in the online library catalogue. This is open for anyone to search. I did this by searching for a specific publisher I am interested in, so that helped me narrow things down right away. I am assuming that if you are reading this there is already something you are interested in at this library. (In my case, I am researching an area of Victorian publishing that crosses between periodicals and books, so their George A. Arents “Books in Parts” collection had some items I was very eager to examine in their original wrappers and bindings. To be honest, if you are working on any historical topic, the odds are pretty good this library has something of interest, as their collection is massive.) 
  3. Log in to the catalogue with your new credentials and begin to save sources you are interested in. Notice which ones are in Off-Site storage — these need to be requested at least a few days in advance, because most of them are stored all the way in New Jersey. If you have trouble requesting them with your temporary barcode number, you can email reference librarians directly for help. It’s important to follow up with them about it, though, as they get a lot of emails. Keep track of whether items you are saving are in a special collection or the main holdings, as this will affect where you read them. 
  4. Double check the hours for the library on the days you’ll be visiting, and the hours for your collection / reading room. If you have very limited time — I unfortunately had just one full day and part of the day prior — politely make that clear in your communication with any archivists or librarians, so things can be timed correctly. 
  5. Read up on the rules for researchers – many of the special collections require you to fill out a 2nd application for use of the materials, in which you describe why you are interested in the pieces, and give an academic reference. Don’t be intimidated: this step is not to keep you from working with items from the collection you are interested in, just to weed out tourists or casual spectators. 
  6. When you get to the library, first look for the “Library Cards” service desk – it was located down in the children’s area. Asking at the main information desk near the entrance will get you directions. Bring along your temporary barcode number from when you applied online, and know your username and PIN. Show your photo ID and sign forms to get your shiny new library card! It will have an expiration date since you live out of town, but KEEP IT after your trip anyway – they can refresh your dates next time you are in the city, and you won’t have to completely reapply. 
  7. Go to the coat check (this is on the lowest level along with the Library Card area) and give them your bag, coat, forbidden pens, etc. It varies by area, but the room / collection I was working with allowed you to bring in only a laptop and camera (phone), and a clear plastic bag with your personal valuables, which had to stay closed while you work. They did not allow you to bring in pens, notebooks, or books, or any cases that your laptop might usually be in. The coat check workers will give you large clear plastic bags to keep your valuables in (which you take with you), and your research materials (in my case, a phone, laptop, and cord). Precisely what you could bring was slightly unclear to me from the instructions online, so I’m glad I asked upstairs first, as there are quite a LOT of stairs between the area with the coat check and the area where you do the reading. 
  8. Take your plastic bags and go back to the reading room – try not to fall over from how beautiful it is as you walk in!  If you have pre-arranged for items to be on hold for you, they will already be there. Follow the instructions from staff — you will have to fill out some more paperwork, in my case a photography log saying what I took images of, and individual paper call slips for each item I worked on. 
  9. The librarians/archivists will give you one item at a time — they furnish you with a padded foam “cradle” for the delicate old items to rest on while you work with them, and book weights to hold down pages for you, as well as advice if needed while you work. The room is quite cold for preservation of old materials, so it’s a good idea to have long sleeves or a warm layer while you work. 
  10. When you are finished with each item, you take it to the desk and they will swap it out for the next one. The staff are very helpful if you have questions as you go. Enjoy the experience! 

When you are completely finished, you return your last item, pack up your things, and go downstairs to reclaim your coat and bag. Before heading down, I made use of the library’s very fast, free WiFi to be certain my digital notes and archive photos were backed up more than one place before leaving. And I left, walking on cloud nine.

I hope this is helpful for students who are new researchers, or anyone looking to make the most of some research time in NYC. It’s certainly a world-class resource, and I’m so grateful for my time working there this past weekend.

Rose Reading Room, 3rd floor, New York Public Library

PS – Even if you aren’t planning to examine special collections or other holdings from the library, consider studying for a bit in the Rose Reading Room (pictured above) on the 3rd floor. Once you get past the little whirlpool of sightseers near the door, I’m convinced it’s the finest space in the world just to sit and read a book or work on some writing.