Oh, the Stuff Those Lions Guard
“One of the five greatest public libraries in the world” is the boast made at a new exhibition celebrating the centennial of the New York Public Library’s august building on Fifth Avenue. And if we are inclined to question the claim, it is only because the institution’s distinctiveness is scarcely suggested by putting it in a class with the Library of Congress, the British Library, the National Library of France and the Russian State Library.
As we learn in this show, “Celebrating 100 Years,” the New York Public Library is the only one of this group that was not established by a national government. Unlike many Old World museums, it is also not an “imperial” institution, many of whose holdings were gathered through plunder and conquest. In addition, it was not established, as many such libraries were, to reflect the character of a nation; it was actually intended to help shape that country’s character.
Moreover, that public mission gained its force from private visions. The Public Library was built on distinguished collections assembled by individuals of great wealth, discernment or passion. The Astor and Lenox libraries formed the core of this new library in 1895; artifacts gathered by Arthur Alfonso Schomburg in the 20th century’s early decades form the core of the library’s invaluable Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And many of its other research collections have similar origins....
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