John Pierpont Morgan has been called the most influential financier in U.S. history. Between 1890 and 1913, his company was instrumental in the establishment of 42 major corporations including General Electric, International Harvester, AT & T, and the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe railway. He financially backed countless projects, including Thomas Edison’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company, as well as the editor who wanted to prop up the then-struggling New York Times.
So it probably comes as no surprise that the phrase “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” is popularly attributed to JP Morgan. His home on Madison Avenue was the first private residence in New York to be lit by electric lights. He owned several yachts, and amassed such an extensive array of rare books, art, antiquities, and manuscripts, that he had a private library built next door to his New York home. Its stunning architecture was intended to provide sumptuous surroundings for the prestigious collection and to impress the wealthy guests who were invited to the Morgan household.
In 1924, 11 years after Morgan’s death, his son JP Morgan Jr., transformed the library into a public space, making it one of the largest gifts of cultural artifacts in U.S. history. For $20 US dollars, you can wander through the library, soaking up its elegance, marvelling at the vastness of the collection. It’s not hard to imagine JP Sr. himself relaxing in front of the fireplace in his office, smoking an expensive cigar and sipping fine brandy, while his private librarian shelved Morgan’s latest acquisition.
A short walk from the Morgan Library’s hushed opulence, you’ll find a library of a different sort – the buzzing main branch of the New York Public Library. It covers two blocks on 5th Avenue, and has holdings of more than 53 million items, making it the second largest library in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world. Established in the same “era of elegance” as Morgan’s private building, it has some similar breath-taking architectural features.
The one difference is that these features, and everything else in the Library, has always been accessible to all members of the public, attracting New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike. The spectacular Rose Main Reading Room is open to everyone, its interior lit by enormous chandeliers and windows, its ceiling a mural swirl of clouds and sunny blue, suggesting that the sky truly is the limit for those who read here.
But the library is not intended only for serious adult patrons. The charming children’s room features a stimulating space for little readers and their caregivers. They can even visit Christopher Robin Milne’s original stuffed animal collection – Winnie-the-Pooh, Kanga, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger – the inspiration for the classics by Christopher’s father, A.A. Milne.
There is, of course, no admission charge at the New York Public Library. Twice daily docent-led tours are free – but get there well ahead of their start times because the day that my friend Angela and I visited, the tickets were all gone by the time we arrived. Not only that, but only one audio guide remained. “We’re thrilled, if a little surprised, to have so many people visiting,” one of the women at the service desk said.
Never mind. Welcome, access, inclusion – that’s what public libraries are all about.