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nypl lions
Photograph: Courtesy Jonathan Blanc / NYPL

Why the New York Public Library's marble lions are the symbols NYC needs right now

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By Anthony W. Marx, President and CEO of The New York Public Library, exclusive to Time Out New York

When I tell people that I’m the president of The New York Public Library, and have the privilege of working inside the historic 42nd Street building every day, I often receive the same response: wow, it must be amazing to walk up the stairs between those lions every day.

The statement is, of course, referring to our beloved marble lions Patience and Fortitude, who have sat stoically outside the Fifth Avenue library since it opened in 1911. The lions--native New Yorkers carved in a Bronx workshop by the Piccirilli Brothers and placed on their pedestals 109 years ago this month-- have become international symbols not just of The New York Public Library, but of the open and free access to information that all libraries provide.

Whenever someone enviously ponders about the lions (whose birthday we’re celebrating today), I usually laugh, responding that I actually use the staff entrance on 40th Street before agreeing whole-heartedly that walking past Patience and Fortitude is spine-tingling. And that’s not just because they’re beautiful and majestic. It’s not just because they’re famous (they’ve been in many movies, books, photographs and social posts after all). And it’s not just because they are symbols of the awesome power of libraries. 

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It’s because Patience and Fortitude represent the strength and resilience of New York. Think about what they have witnessed from their perches on Fifth Avenue: a changing landscape, countless celebrations and parades, marches for social justice, protests, book drives during world wars, the days, months, and weeks following 9/11. Recessions. They have withstood storms, vandalism (Fortitude once had to deal with a fire in 1959), and really, really tough times.

In fact, they were named by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia when he determined in the 1930s that all New Yorkers needed patience and fortitude to get through the Great Depression. He saw, even then, the powerful symbolism of the lions: how they stand defiantly and calmly at the center of a bustling city, proudly poised regardless of circumstance. It doesn’t matter how scary and uncertain the world feels: they stand strong, somehow both protective and welcoming. 

That certainly resonates today. New York, we need to look to our lions, on their "birthday" and as the Library system itself approaches its 125th anniversary, for inspiration. We need to stand strong. Defiant. We must believe that we can overcome this nightmare--better if it had been left to the science fiction section of one of our branches--if we support each other and proceed with much-needed patience and fortitude. 

We all want to get back to a hustling and bustling New York City. But let’s be smart. Let’s be cautious and considerate. Let’s be positive and open-minded but also protective and careful. 

Until we do return, the Library itself--like the lions--is here to stand strong for New Yorkers, offering a wide range of remote services to support our City (e-books via our e-reader SimplyE, virtual tutoring, job search assistance, online storytimes, online classes, and more). There is no better way for the Library system to celebrate its 125th anniversary on May 23 than to adhere to our mission and offer knowledge, education, and opportunity to all, pandemic be damned. Like the lions, we will defiantly keep going, as we all should.

And when we do, I am confident that we will all soon have a chance to walk past the lions once again. I know two things: one, I miss seeing them every day (I’ve even walked by a few times to say hello), and two, when we’re all back, they’ll be there, waiting. 

From Time Out:

Today, you can celebrate the lion's birthday through a number of fun online activities at nypl.org/125/lions.

Flip through old photos of the New York Public Library's 42nd Street building from when it opened in 1911 to 1986, when it celebrated the lions' birthday by placing a top hat and black tie on them, or pick out your next book from curated book lists inspired by Patience and Fortitude.

Kids can tune into a special lion storytime at 2pm or send the lions a digital birthday card. There are also coloring pages and activities kids can do form home.

And don't miss the quiz, "Which Lion Are You?"

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