The Donnell Library Center: A Eulogy In Pictures

A few months ago the Donnel Library closed its doors.  Since the 1955 the library on 53rd street has been a New York landmark.  It stood across from MOMA and had one of the best film libraries in the city.  Unfortunately, the City Of New York thought it would better serve the public as another midtown luxury hotel.  Due to the bylaws establishing the library that space HAS to have a library, but due to loop holes, they are tearing it down, building the hotel and then shoving the library into the basement.  I think the New York Times put it well when they said:

When the $220 million hotel opens, sometime in 2011, a new Donnell library will occupy part of the first floor and an underground area, coexisting with hotel guests paying $750 to $2,000 per night for a room.

I can’t believe how sad it is.  I know that I love the internet, and part of my job is to digitize library books so they can be available online.  But it is very troubling to see technology kill off libraries and newspapers (I am looking at you Tribune).  So, as I mentioned my job is to digitize books.  I work for The Internet Archive.  Until October I worked in the Donnell Library and got to watch it go from a bustling location, to a party closed less frequented library, to basically a book store, to an empty shell of a building.  Long after it closed we continued to work.  Our last week there they really began ripping out it’s guts.  Coincidentally on our last day I got my new camera and got to work an hour early, and stayed a little bit late, wondering all over the building collecting some memories of the fantastic place. It’s pretty horrifying to walk into a room with dust all over the floor, baby chairs all pushed into a corner, wires hanging from the celling, and realizing you are standing on a Winnie The Pooh poster.

I think I took some pretty amazing photos back in October.  I am not sure why I have been holding onto to them for so long, but I think part of it was that I didn’t know if I could come up with a fitting eulogy for the place.  I am pretty sure I didn’t but it is time to get them up.  These images need to be seen.  Also, if you are wondering, there are several shots of people in this gallery.  They are my coworkers at with the exception of our amazing West Indian security guard who I think we all miss.

Click here to see the full gallery of pictures.  I have posted a lot of photos below, more than I normally do with a photo update, but I think there is more of an impact when you see a bunch at once.









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Comments (44)


  1. Chandler
    December 11th, 2008 | 3:24 pm

    So sad. What the future looks like from the edge. Imagine when the NY Public Library becomes a battery recycling center or whatever. Those wrought-iron shelves empty. So sad.

  2. December 11th, 2008 | 3:31 pm

    oh man that is a very sad day!!!! so what is going to happen with all the book collection etc? and where will people go for all the books/films? stupid money!! that is all its about!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! grrrrrrrr.

  3. bort
    December 11th, 2008 | 3:46 pm

    what do they do will all the books/films that were in the library?

  4. bort
    December 11th, 2008 | 3:46 pm

    what do they do will all the books/films that were in the library?

  5. December 11th, 2008 | 3:53 pm

    this is sad, and yet so beautiful.

  6. December 11th, 2008 | 4:14 pm

    beautiful work capturing the demise of a giant, or at least something like a postmortem.

    when the going gets tough, the tough start shooting. and the shots are brilliant here.

  7. P. Adriana
    December 11th, 2008 | 4:53 pm

    I worked there, too, for a brief time in the Children’s Room. They had the most amazing collection of children’s lit.

  8. December 11th, 2008 | 5:05 pm

    Thanks for posting these. I used to go to the library a lot (I work around the corner). In addition to its book collection, it had a great music and film collection. Just walking through the stacks introduced me to so many classics that I don’t even know where to begin. I am sorry to see it go, and would like to thank those who worked here for helping to provide such a great facility, it will be missed.

  9. anon
    December 11th, 2008 | 5:07 pm


    Your comment was too short. Please go back and enter a meaningful comment.

  10. Andy
    December 11th, 2008 | 5:22 pm

    Is this really about the Board of the NYPL being comprised mostly of real estate magnates looking to make money developing the valuable sites on which libraries are located around our city — or helping their friends make money?
    Why don’t people protest BEFORE their precious libraries are destroyed (or “relocated”) ?!

  11. December 11th, 2008 | 6:14 pm

    I can’t believe that yet another library has been closed. I don’t know whether to blame the educational system or the lack of patrons. Either way, it’s sad. Very sad.

  12. Sarah the Librarian
    December 11th, 2008 | 7:18 pm

    Your photo gallery is moving. So much so that it made me cry. It’s sad to see a Library dissolved to be replaced by a hotel. What is our society coming to?

  13. December 11th, 2008 | 10:06 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful post and photos. Even though I had only been to the library a few times (it’s not too convenient from Minnesota) I thought I would return there on each visit to New York, and I’m so sad to hear of its demise.

  14. Karen the Librarian
    December 11th, 2008 | 10:56 pm

    Thanks for the photos. I was a children’s librarian at Donnell for 2 years in the mid-90s. Sad it see it go.

  15. Sarah Despairah
    December 11th, 2008 | 11:17 pm

    The one of all the books in boxes, covered in plastic really hurts me. They look like they are in body bags. Dead to only those who care….

  16. December 12th, 2008 | 12:33 am

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Here is some info posted by someone on Boing Boing about the library:

    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:

    It’s good to know that something positive might come out of it.

  17. ash
    December 12th, 2008 | 1:04 am

    This is so sad to see. I’m also a digitizer, but only work with extremely frail + brittle + very, very old content.
    They’d better make that new, basement library pretty spectacular.

  18. Withnail
    December 12th, 2008 | 1:31 am

    Darn it –

    My mother’s a librarian. But I can’t, as her son, in good conscience send her to your site. She’ll see nekkid people!!!!!

  19. Scorpiblue4u
    December 12th, 2008 | 12:40 pm

    get ready folks cause this is just the beginning

  20. Becky
    December 12th, 2008 | 12:45 pm

    Such a heartbreaking scene, especially since I was a patron there since I was a child.

    And Withnail, I have a feeling that your mother, as a grown woman and librarian has probably seen naked people before. Of course, I’m forever scarred for walking in on my mom on the computer with porn up on the screen.

  21. December 12th, 2008 | 1:48 pm

    Oh man, I didn’t even know this was happening. I grew up going to libraries weekly in Texas. When I moved to NYC in August ’07, the Donnel was my refuge, job search base of operations, and second home. I have a lot of memories there and would have liked to see it one last time (for the past 4 months I’ve been going to the Central Manhattan branch)

  22. December 12th, 2008 | 2:15 pm

    Amazing photos, thanks for sharing!

  23. Jack Ballz
    December 12th, 2008 | 2:42 pm

    Tippin my 40 as we speak….

  24. Russ
    December 12th, 2008 | 6:18 pm

    i don’t know why people resist change. clearly the library just wasn’t good enough. look at it’s condition!

  25. luce
    December 13th, 2008 | 10:18 am

    The young adult section had been fairly recently redone and was a terrific welcoming place. I often went to the new books exhibits for young adults when I was a school librarian. It’s a real shame. I wonder who will have the money to stay in yet another overpriced hotel with the world wide recession growing as it is.

  26. December 13th, 2008 | 1:47 pm

    It is really heart-wrenching to see these photos, having spent so much time in those spaces myself–I too was a very dedicated user of the Donnell Collection which is a very fine and unique collection of films and media and cannot be spoken of too highly. Also DBB, thanks for printing the facts, of course it is sad but you cannot kill the heart of librarianship which is a dedication to public materials and free culture for all. Long live the Donnell Media Center!

  27. nc
    December 15th, 2008 | 9:48 am

    I just wanted to bump the follow-up comment about the collection still being available at other branches, the Donnell reopening, and this being an (albeit extreme) measure to funnel money into the library system. It seems some of the commenters here have jumped to some sort of book-burning conclusion here, which is disturbing, given that I usually associate those types of reactions with my enemies and not my library frequenting brethren. While it’s sad to see photos of a decimated library, isn’t it true that the NYPL has taken steps to make the 16mm films collection *more* available since the move to the Performing Arts branch?

  28. December 15th, 2008 | 11:07 am

    I will miss this great location. What a bad policy decision.

  29. Be
    December 15th, 2008 | 3:35 pm

    It’s criminal that the Donnell was destroyed. What’s possibily just as bad is that with the economy the way it is, it may have been for nothing since the hotel likely will not be built.

  30. Filmbat
    December 17th, 2008 | 10:48 am

    The closing of Donnell was like the evacuation of Vietnam. Not good, not noble. But here is some positive news: the film collection, reserve video collection, Correa video collection and Media Center staff are now at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Have been since May. The DVDs (including the popular Superstar Teachers series) were sent to Mid-Manhattan and are still in the process of being unpacked. The Library is undergoing a conceptual change so it’s not all greed at work here. Traditionally, the entire NYPL system was divided into three categories: Research branches, Central branches and your regular neighborhood branch. The funding for each category was woefully uneven (research got huge amounts of private money while the branches couldn’t buy pencils). Under the new One Library plan, they’re trying to erradicate the three divisions to create, you guessed it, one library. So while it is distasteful that an important social institution will be replaced by yet another mid-town hotel, the Donnell collections have been moved to those research branches that now need circulating collections.

  31. C.Barr
    December 17th, 2008 | 10:55 am

    I’m pretty irked by all sides of the situation: the library for not providing any useful information whatsoever and the public for making overly dramatic assessions of the situation (uh, the books and films are not in “body bags”- they’re bound for much needed offsite cold storage). The evacuation from the library sucked and was really traumatic and I hate that an important cultural center is being closed…but honestly, the building SUCKED and all the collections therein deserved a better home.

  32. C.Barr
    December 17th, 2008 | 11:41 am

    …oh, and since this will be of interest the host of this blog, any Donnell films that were deemed necessary for deaccession (really bad condition, titles that never should have been acquired in the first place, etc.) went to Rick Prelinger. So not a single reel was thrown out.

  33. KPM
    December 18th, 2008 | 4:11 pm

    Hurrah another overpriced New York hotel that most people can’t stay at…. one can certainly understand the need for funds that our cultural institutions have right now…but who will ask the question… when does this end? When do we say enough and stop tearing down our cultural institutions? The New York City Opera, The Baltimore Opera…. what will stand?

  34. Zelda43
    January 27th, 2009 | 10:43 am

    I worked at Donnell all through college in the 60s. It feels like a piece of my life has disappeared. It was such a vital place back then and busy like you wouldn’t believe. I can see it all vividly, so at least my memories still endure.

  35. Lino
    March 10th, 2009 | 12:58 am

    Today (3-9-09) the NYPL staff received a short missive from “the head” that the sale of Donnell has essentially fallen through. They are negotiating to “get them to live up to their commitment” -meaning that either it’s dead altogether or, the NYPl will have to settle for substantially less than the $53M of the original deal. Not too surprising, the hotel and condo markets have tanked but libraries are doing record traffic. Typical.

  36. January 18th, 2010 | 10:48 pm

    […] of the Day (click to enlarge): Three images from Driven by Boredom, documenting the shuttered Donnell Library. More through the link. (Hattip: Ryland Walker […]

  37. March 12th, 2010 | 9:31 am

    […] the library was closed in 2008 to make way for an 11-story luxury hotel that never materialized.–Marilyn No dialog […]

  38. June 7th, 2010 | 4:09 pm

    […] In the last days of the Donnell Library here in New York I took my fair share of pictures.  After all, we were there when the first stages of the destruction began.  And I was happy to hold onto them for my own personal use rather than place them where the world could see.  Someone else did not feel such qualms over posting some photos of their own, though.  If you’d like to see The Donnell Library Center: A Eulogy in Pictures […]

  39. July 5th, 2010 | 2:36 am

    it’s too sad…I wish they’d just let it be. thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

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  40. Cornelia East
    July 20th, 2010 | 6:47 am

    The NYPL sold the library, not NYC. The hotel will be 40 stories, not 11. Orient Express Hotels made it taller after the NYTimes article. The NYTimes never followed up with a correction. Chelsea Now had very good continuous coverage of the issue.The NYPL claimed it would cost 80 million to renovate the library but refused to produce the engineer’s report they referred to as the source of the info. NYPL claimed it needed new HVAC systems and new elevators. Nothing they said about the deal rang true, but it doesn’t matter. There was no public hearing held about a pending sale and the 92% of the NYPL’s operating costs come from tax money.The people who are on the board are not the type to offer their actions up for public scrutiny or community input and the members of the City Council were negligent in protecting citizens from this brazen act taken in secret. The library can stil be saved but there has been no one emerging as a leader of this effort. It is a full time job. Send comments to

  41. Cornelia East
    July 20th, 2010 | 6:59 am

    Groundbreaking is scheduled for June 2011.

  42. August 12th, 2010 | 8:03 pm

    so sad…………………………..

  43. November 29th, 2010 | 5:12 pm

    […] Inspired by photographs of the preparation of the library’s materials for digitizing by, and the library’s current, ambiguous status, traversal53 is a process of scanning the transitional moment of the building itself, analogous to the scanning of the materials of the library prior to their relocation. […]

  44. December 7th, 2010 | 12:43 am

    […] heard from nate “igor” smith of drivenbyboredom — where we found this post that started our interest in the donnell. igor wrote to us and has some more photos he took of the […]

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