New York City’s Secret (Tiny) Subway

The main branch of the New York Public Library, officially the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, is located in midtown Manhattan — and it’s enormous. The building runs from 40th Street to 42nd across 5th Avenue, stretching about a third of the way toward Sixth. It contains an estimated 2.5 million volumes of books in its stacks with millions more in storage just a few feet away.

Those stored books are in Bryant Park, a nearly ten-acre public space behind the library which, as seen above right, hosts an ice skating rink during the winter months. (The library is the building on the left, behind the illuminated greenhouse.) Beneath the park are the Milstein Research Stacks, which hold approximately four million more volumes of books across a combined length of roughly 80 miles of bookshelves. The Research Stacks, originally built in the 1980s, are virtually unknown to the thousands and thousands of people who visit Bryant Park each year; as the New York Times reported, the stacks are “17 feet below ground, in a concrete bunker worthy of the White House.” You don’t find them by accident.

And you don’t have to visit, either. If you want a book from the Stacks, you don’t have to go into the catacombs. The books will come to you. They’ll take a train.

In October of 2016, the library began using a monorail-like book delivery system. Librarians from the main building could summon a book from the underground stacks by tapping the request into a computer system; that message would go to workers in the Stacks who, in turn, would place the books into one of two-dozen custom train cars like the two seen above. To get from beneath Bryant Park and into the main branch, the books travel along 950 feet of tracks which, at times, run vertically — the little cars are designed so that the greyish bucket carrying the payload always remains upright while the red, lion-adorned base pivots to meet the track’s direction.

According to WNYC (New York’s NPR affiliate), “the cars run independent of one another, travel at a top speed of 75 feet-per-minute and are able to carry up to 30 pounds in research materials” — realistically, each car can transport about four regular-sized books to anywhere in the main library in about five minutes (plus the time it takes for someone to retrieve the items from the stacks). The system cost the library about $2.6 million and isn’t quite perfect — larger items like maps still have to be delivered by hand — but it saves a lot of people a lot of walking.

If you want to see the train in action for yourself, you don’t have to come to Bryant Park to do so — the New York Times has you covered with a video, here.


Bonus fact: Books aren’t the only thing you’ll find at the Schwarzman Building. It’s also home to a very special toy — the original Winnie the Pooh. The Library’s official website explains: “Long before Walt Disney turned Pooh and his pals into movie stars, Christopher Robin Milne, a very real little boy living in England, received a small stuffed bear on his first birthday. He named him Edward Bear (later renamed Winnie-the-Pooh). Following Edward came the rest of the stuffed animals, which Christopher loved and played with throughout his childhood.” Those stuffed animals became the basis for the Winnie the Pooh stories, and today, the original toys are on display at the library.

From the Archives: Winnie the Pooh-Poohed: The Polish ban of the cartoon bear.