Diaries, Letters, Cat Paw? What’s Inside the New York Public Library

Most of us don’t work in iconic buildings. Or, if our offices have any sort of local notoriety, we may not often think of them in that context. When Deborah Straussman goes to work, she walks past a pair of massive marble lions that have achieved landmark status (and are apparently named Patience and Fortitude) and enters the esteemed halls of the New York Public Library.

Marble lion in front of grand building, the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
Patience…or Fortitude…outside the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

What does it mean to work in a library today? Librarians and research assistants immediately come to mind, the essential public servants who tirelessly assist us when our specific or ridiculous internet searches come up empty.

But the work is so much broader than that, especially when the library in question, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, is one of the 92 locations of the nation’s largest library system, which serves millions of people.

Libraries today—and, honestly, throughout time—are staffed by an eclectic mix of librarians and curators, administrative professionals and technicians. The people who come to work in the library system come for different reasons. For Straussman, being an employee of a library was never on her radar.

“I had a slightly convoluted path,” she said. “I was an art history and studio art major in undergrad. After graduating, I worked in television for a number of years.

“I was questioning if I was a good fit for the TV world and started thinking about what else I might do. I took some classes and ultimately decided to go to grad school for arts administration.”

An arts administration degree may seem incongruent with library work. But as manager of registrar services, Straussman works directly with the library’s collection. Pull back the curtain on what’s inside that collection and her background seems like a perfect fit.

Access for all

Libraries provide an interesting lesson in how our institutions have to shift with the times. We often have quaint notions of libraries, but they are so much more than a reading room.

“I think some of the traditional roles are still very much in effect,” Straussman said. “And then I think there are ways that libraries have really taken it upon themselves to broaden the initial mission. A lot of libraries provide things like English as a second language or computer skills (classes) or provide Wi-Fi.

“In addition to access to books or other written materials, it’s just broadening the idea of disseminating knowledge and accessibility of knowledge and being almost social service providers.”

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, renowned for featuring American institutions, featured the New York Public Library and all it encompasses in his 2017 film “Ex Libris – The New York Public Library.”

“As someone who works here, the main thing that’s interesting about the film is that it’s a snapshot of a particular time,” Straussman said. NYPL “is an institution that changes both quickly and slowly at the same time.”

The New York Public Library offers everything from a yearly Anti-Prom event, to a lending library of interview clothes, to computer skills classes.

NYPL: Preservation and Collections Processing Unit

The NYPL’s programs are the public-facing manifestation of the artifacts the institution protects. The most obvious being an exhaustive collection of books and papers, but the back catalog is much more surprising than that.

NYPL’s head registrar, Deborah Straussman.

“We have all kinds of materials, ranging from books to maps, archives, photography, prints, sculpture and some of what is often called ephemera,” Straussman said. “Eyeglasses or letter openers, I think we have Jack Kerouac’s crutches.”

A typical day can mean Straussman finds herself in close contact with pieces that inspire a moment of awe.

“I remember one of the first items I felt that with: We have some of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and she handmade the covers. She has very distinctive handwriting so they really have this sense of a person about them,” Straussman said.

“Then we have other things that have a good story to them. We have Charles Dickens’ letter opener that he fashioned from the paw of his very beloved cat. It has an either ivory or bone opener and the handle is a paw. It’s a very quirky object.”

Straussman’s work focuses on risk-management for collections. That broadly means caring for the collections when they’re in transit, when they’re on exhibition and when they go out on loan to other institutions.

Some days she’s in meetings with other departments within the library—fairly typical office work—while other days bring her into the galleries or even onto transport trucks as a courier, accompanying a collection on the move. Her work means she gets to interact with curators, conservators and art handlers.

On the other side of a career transition

Perhaps unsurprisingly, caring for and promoting this vast collection of disparate objects attracts a workforce of equally varied people. For Straussman, this only further validates her decision to make a career change when she did.

These walls hold a vast collection of unexpected materials. Add the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library to your “must visit” list.

There are aspects to her first career that carry over to her work today. Years of securing permissions for interviews and locations or acquiring photographs and videos for documentaries gave her the skills and the interest to lean into her work with contracts and insurance arrangements at the library.

The behind-the-scenes work of producing a documentary is not totally dissimilar to the behind the scenes work of coordinating an exhibition. Despite her comfort juggling logistics, however, Straussman recalled other aspects of her production work feeling unsatisfying, and finding herself at a crossroads, professionally.

“One thing that I remember doing when I was in television was trying to ask a lot of people who had more experience than I did … ‘this is what I feel like the work is like for me. Is that unique to this company or is that something you feel is industry-wide?’”

This informal polling ultimately propelled her onto her new path with NYPL.

“Pretty quickly, when I was in graduate school and when I was interning at different museums and other arts organizations, I did find that things right away seemed to be a better fit for me. That was validating. Now at the library there is definitely that sense that I made the right choice.”

Are you a fan of libraries and literature? Discover “The Great American Read,” an eight-part PBS television series and nationwide campaign that explores the joy of reading through the lens of America’s 100 best-loved novels, as voted on by the public.

Marissa Blahnik

Marissa is managing editor of Rewire and an award-winning digital and broadcast media producer. She identifies as a Leo, a Jersey girl, and a musical theater fanatic.