Last days of an NYC library

Igor sez,

I work for at a scanning center in NYC. Until a couple of months ago we worked at the Donnell Library in midtown. If you have ever been to MOMA it was the big library across the street. The city of NYC decided to turn it into a luxury hotel for some reason. There are a ton of people who frequent the library for books, internet and an amazing film library. It was really really sad to see it go. I didn't grow up in NYC, but many coworkers of mine did and they had so many memories of being a kid there and seeing their amazing Winnie the Pooh collection and watching movies for free.

The library is going to be reopened at a fraction of its size in the basement of the hotel, but that is only because by law the space MUST be used for a library and it won't be open for years.

Anyway, because of my job for the Internet Archive, we were the very last people out of the building long after all the librarians had moved on. On my last day of work I wondered the building and took shots of the demolition. The pictures, at least to me, are pretty emotionally stirring. I really think you guys will be interested in seeing them.

The Donnell Library Center: A Eulogy In Pictures (Thanks, Igor!)


  1. Nooooooooo! I loved that libary as a kid. My mom took us to the movies there, and got us great books, and records too like Burl Ives singing “Little White Duck.”

  2. It’s sad to see libraries having to close, especially when people need them more and more as a resource and public utility. How many of the things that used to live here are irreplaceable, and where will they go?

  3. Did I miss news of the Great Manhattan Luxury Hotel Shortage of 2008?

    Went to some good PEN America readings there over the years: sad…. Lovely photos, though! Cruel paradox, that of realizing the worth of something lost through images of its absence….

  4. yeah same thing happened to all the toy companies in the Toy building across for the Flat Iron. Sad to see some classic buildings being gutted for rich fools.

  5. Ugg… Very sad.

    I can just imagine some city bureaucrat saying, “We don’t need libraries, we have the Internet now!”. Where will those books be going? Dusty warehouse, robotic storage system, recycling center…

    I hope I’m not going off topic with this but…

    A while back I was working at a newspaper where they were planning on dumping their morgue of past editions. I was against this and their argument was that all the past editions were backed up electronically.

    Of course, “electronically” meant a mix of old Syquest, JAZ, and Magneto-Optical disks piled in the corner of a room filled with the last of the old dusty computers which could still read them. In fact, the Magneto-Optical disks turned out to be unreadable. All the good intentions of media migration were up against human procrastination.

    And robotic book storage systems are another pet peeve of mine.
    Once the book is in the bin, you better be damn careful about backing up the database, otherwise the only way you’ll find them again is to open up every single bin of the whole system and re-scan in every book.

    I guess I just love books. Good, solid, persistent blocks of paper. On shelves. Browse-able. They may take up floor space, but 100 years from now they are still readable. Unlike any digital format.

    Oh, and all those people dumping the photo album and storing precious family digital photos on CD’s…

    No. Better not go there. Just getting myself all riled up. I’m done now. Thank you for your patience.

  6. I work around the corner from this library.

    One of my favorite activities in the known universe was to head to this library on my way to or back from lunch, browse the stacks for a few moments — inhaling that wonderful library smell (smells like… victory…) — and check out the Sale Book racks (my specific vice, as opposed to the more general ones).

    I “rescued,” as I like to call it, many (perhaps hundreds?) of childrens’ books from those Sale Book racks, for when I have kids some day. Thank you, Donnell, at the very least for that.

    RIP. You will be (you are!) sorely missed.

  7. Wasn’t this closure driven by the NYPL and not the city itself? My understanding is they sold some midtown real estate(very valuable) in an effort to expand and improve other buildings in the area as well as to provide greater service to lower income neighborhoods.

  8. As someone who knows a bit about the physical and digital preservation initiatives at NYPL, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the conversation.

    1. Whether or not I like that Donnell is being sold and renovated, it’s happening… With that said, the money from that sale will be put into other programs to serve patrons of the NYPL. I can’t really say if the apples being traded for oranges will be worth it… I don’t know exactly where those dollars are going but there is a fair possibility that some of it is going to free up money to: buy more computers for branch libraries in the Bronx, advance digital initiatives and the improvement of the NYPL’s website ( and/or fund treatment of objects in NYPL’s collection.

    2. The materials from Donnell are still available. The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center now has most of the A/V materials. Most of the children’s collection is available at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library (the one at 42nd st and 5th ave, with the lions out front). There is also a new children’s room in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. (some info on the room is here:

    3. The digital preservation problem is not lost on some staff at NYPL. It’d be great to have more money and staff dedicated to digital preservation. The digital archiving program is in its infancy. Two people in the Preservation Division have a done a lot of work on digital preservation outside of NYPL and are *really* looking forward to doing more work on NYPL collections.

    4. This week, the head of NYPL, Paul LeClerc, is accepting questions through the City Blog at the NY Times (link: This is a great place to state concerns about Donnell, preservation, conservation of objects, digital preservation, the website, your experience as patrons and other issues having to do with NYPL. So please post some questions and comments.

    Finally, I hope this post does not seem defensive. I have seen plenty of pros and cons of the new directions the NYPL is being led. Your feedback does really matter, so please do add your comments to the City Room blog or contact library staff contact info:

  9. Our family discovered this gem quite by accident during a trip to NYC a few summers ago.

    We enjoyed relaxing in a comfortable branch library in midtown Manhattan. It really helped us pace ourselves and avoid tourist fatigue. We also appreciated the main library but surprise, it was not as comfortable as the more modest but well-run Donnell.

    The Gumby collection was really heartwarming! I loved that show as a kid and seeing figurines, scripts and authentic production memorabilia was really a treat.

    I hope “leaving well enough alone” was a consideration amidst this big strategic improvement.

  10. I think Pooh Bear and friends are living in the new Children’s Room at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

    To follow up on a prior post/FYI:

    The documentary and world cinema video collections, and the world languages collection are now at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street

    Donnell Media Center is now at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza. It has the reserve film and video collection, the circulating audio collection, and the study center for on-site viewing.

  11. Wouldn’t it make sense to create, heaven forbid, a literary themed mega hotel?

    I mean, imagine if upstairs the luxury hotel had old, topical books everywhere… And a dewey-Decimal room numbering scheme, with appropriate books in each room as decor.

    Then downstairs, create a very modern, multi-floor library, with all kinds of space saving archival solutions? I know here at the U of A, we have huge bookshelves that open up aisles when someone needs to get to a specific section, down in the dense stacks….

    It’s just lame to think that they’re replacing it, with NO regard for the history fo the Library or it’s goals.

    1. Wouldn’t it make sense to create, heaven forbid, a literary themed mega hotel?

      I thought of that too. If you can get people to stay in a gulag, why not a library? They could read bedtime stories. It would be brilliant.

  12. Actually, it sort of is true that the number of libraries needed has decreased because of the Internet and digitally available content. I lived in the East Village for years and the library was an awful place full of drunk, disorderly, and odious people escaping the alternate heat and cold of NYC in one of the few buildings that wouldn’t throw them out.

    It’s all well and good that you remember going to the library as a kid and reading Winnie the Pooh, but now all the normal people are gone and this one library in the East Village is no place to take kids.

    I like books but I’ll stick to booksellers and the Internet and other libraries that have fewer residents.

  13. Dear Mr. Bloomberg,

    I really hate you. You suck. Go die.

    non-luxury condo dweller

    PS-Did you give the developers crazy cush ass pre-crash tax abatements? You dickweed.

  14. hey guys. it was great to come home from work and hear all these stories and things. i am glad i could have taken these photos for everyone.

    and @cassinglerevival thanks for the info, I am going to post it in the comments section of my site as well.

  15. Hopefully one good thing to come out of the Second Great Depression will be a lot of luxury hotels, push restaurants, Svarovski-encrusted crapvendors and so on closing down, and the space being given to libraries. (With credit being no longer what it used to be, the consumeristic-acquisitive impulse to buy stuff on Amazon may give way to people going to libraries to borrow it, just like their grandparents did.)

  16. I haven’t lived in NYC for 8 years. I’m sorry to learn that the Donnell is gone. As a kid, it’s where I did my research for my first term paper in 8th grade. It was large but not intimidating the way the main library on 42nd and 5th can be (or at least that’s how it felt to me at the time).

    As an adult, I used the midManhattan and mail branch libraries more, but the Donnell really was a nice resource

  17. That’s sad. I used to get some great vinyl classical records there back in the old days. Of course that was before the internet and even CDs. . .

    1. No, Orient Express backed out and then recently agreed to honor their commitment. It may be another five years.

  18. I would love to know where all of you were when the Save the Donnell Committee of the West 54 55 Street Block Associatioin was working for the last year and had meetings with Community Board Five and the NYPL on the issue of the secret sale of the Donnell to the Orient Express Hotels. THe New York Times and Chelsea Now had articles on our activities and the protest we staged and there is a notice on the window of the Donnell with contact information. There was also a recent Chelsea Now article on the fiasco that happened at the Community Board 5 Landmarks Committee over recommending the Donnell for Landmark Status. The contract with OEH, according to the COO of NYPL David Offensend in a meeting at the City Council offices in the presence of Dan Garodnick, City Council person and others states that if OEH doesn’t break ground for the new library in June 2011, they have to pay a penalty of $30 mil, on top of the $59 mil sales price. Our next step is to strategize a plan of what we want in the new library-not just a circulating library as has been offered, but some of the library services that were offered by Donnell as well as the return of the auditorium and free day, evening and weekend events that were provided to the community. If you would like to participate in the effort–we mean doing work!! not just coming to meetings (virtual or otherwise), please contact and provide your email contact as well as how you would like to participate and what your skills are. Spys not welcome. The NYPL’s plans include selling MidManhattan and SIBL, the research library. None of this should be allowed. It may be legal, but is it ethical? 92% of the NYPL’s operating funds come from YOUR TAXES!!

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