A great place to go if you are ever in New York City is the NY Public Library’s main branch at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Because it is a library, a lot of tourists steer clear of the landmark building and head a couple blocks west to the bright lights, big city experience of Times Square.
You have seen this unbelievable public library in countless movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ghostbusters, Spiderman and The Day After Tomorrow. It is absolutely worth visiting, if only to see the stunning Rose Main Reading Room with its frescos and epic ceiling.
The Rare Book Division is the NYPL’s answer to the restricted section of the Hogwarts library, only lots bigger, containing old volumes of Shakespeare next to penny dreadfuls, first editions of the greats and much, much more. It’s the kind of place that would make Dean Corso break into a cold sweat.
But I am here to let you in on a secret: the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division is the place to check out. It is another beautiful room, but the real treasure is their 433,000 original sheet maps and 20,000 books and atlases dating back as far as the 1400’s.
Personally, I think crinkly old maps are wide-eyed fun, right up there with creepy tintypes and postcards yellowing with age. When I first discovered the Map Room, I spent hours in it, requesting maps of European cities like London, Vienna and Budapest from the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris from a time before the Cimetière des Innocents was demolished and the bones of thousands were removed to the catacombs of Montparnasse.
I was blown away that they would actually hand these precious map babies over to me, the mad, impetuous fools. The good news is they’re still doing it.
To access the maps, you need a library card (but you don’t need to be a resident and you can get one online), then it’s open season. They also have really large printers so you can get photocopies of the maps you love, but making map requests in advance is highly recommended.
When it comes to reading, I’m old school: I still prefer physical books to e-readers. What about you? Leave a comment below and let me know.