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March 30, 2010

The Library’s Lions

A New York institution honors artists and—shhh!—also gives them a place to work.

Elie Wiesel still remembers the words that Saul Bellow once spoke to him: "Everyone in New York has a link to the New York Public Library." But the city’s writers and artists have more than mere links to the institution. They practically haunt the place. Step into this 112-year-old library and you’ll see the greats of arts and letters flipping through card catalogues, just another day at the office. There’s biographer Robert Caro writing The Power Broker, singer Renée Fleming searching for rare recordings, director Julie Taymor digging through the Picture Collection. Beyond celebrity patrons, many of the NYPL’s holdings them­selves are of celebrity quality: a Gutenberg Bible, the archives of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov, the papers of Malcolm X. One night each year the normally no-nonsense institution puts on a black-tie gala at which a handful of prominent arts-and-letters figures are inducted as Library Lions. This November’s celebration marks the tenth anniversary of the Lions. Gayfryd Steinberg will chair the event, while her friend, party planner (and departures contributing editor) David Monn, transforms the grand Rose Main Reading Room for one evening only. In addition to the new honorees—Tom Stoppard, Martin Scorsese, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Hope Franklin—Lions from the past decade have been in­­vited this year. Five of them share their thoughts on the following page about what the library has meant to them.