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Why They Visit


Yesterday, more than 7,500 people waited outside my office here in the main building of the Library. Today looks just as busy. They are not waiting for the latest blockbuster movie or even, as is often the case, in smaller numbers, to use our computers. This is something entirely different.

We have on public display, together, for the first time in decades, one of two surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's hand and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights drawn up by George Washington to send to the states for ratification. These are our founding documents, on display to celebrate America's birthday this week. They are among the crown jewels of the Library’s amazing collections and they belong to the public, who are now flocking to the Library to enjoy them and find inspiration in them.

Since these documents are easily viewed online, I asked visitors why they were waiting to see them. My favorite was the simplest answer: "Because we are American." But it seems that many of the people in line are from all over the world. While we celebrate the rights we enjoy as Americans, we also admire what these documents have meant for rights everywhere. Maybe that feels all the more poignant today when so many people in other countries are in the streets fighting for the same rights.

Seeing the documents in the original brings the reality of the historical process of their foundation to life. It gives goose bumps just to see the handwriting and the corrections. In the Library’s copy of the Declaration, we see Jefferson's underlining of the section decrying slavery, which the founders were forced to remove to appease the South. Rights come through struggle and in fits and starts. They don’t arrive full-blown in engraved documents.

The Bill of Rights is even more of a surprise. There are 12 amendments listed. I am no constitutional expert, but I am pretty sure the Bill of Rights has only 10 amendments. It turns out 12 were sent for ratification but only 10 were approved. Two that didn’t belong were eliminated: one setting congressional pay, the other stipulating the ratio of representation, which, if enacted, would now have produced a House of Representatives with 6,000 members. Something tells me that would not have worked out well. But what worked was democracy, at its founding, in making the right collective decisions. Without seeing the document in its original form, I would not have understood that lesson—or not nearly as powerfully.

History is a lived process, of fits and starts. Our collections bring that home. And they remind us that we then too are part of history—maybe not in the founding of a democracy—but in perfecting it, which as Abraham Lincoln reminded us is never-ending.

On this Independence Day, what could be better than to be reminded that history is available to us all and shaped by us all. The Library—that vital public place founded to share that history—can still inspire in this way. And people will line up for the experience.

This exhibit remains on display today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Come by and stand next to history. Then I hope you will go make some.

And if you miss the exhibit today, don’t worry. We will keep the documents safe and then plan to install them as part of a Treasures exhibition that will be on permanent public display for years to come.

Happy 4th of July!


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This is the second time I've

This is the second time I've seen Jefferson's copy of the Declaration at NYPL. I always seek out his statement against slavery. This time I noticed he capitalized "MEN" when writing against the buying and selling of men--an emphasis he rarely used elsewhere. Yet it was dropped from the version that was adopted and it took another nine decades to abolish the buying, selling and ownership of people. Something to ponder on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.

How sad it is that you noted

How sad it is that you noted that these treasures of American history were on display from 10AM until 4PM, but you failed to add that in order to see them you had to be on line by 3PM. A wasted trip and a depressing way to go into the Independence Day holiday!

It is not Mr. Marx's fault

It is not Mr. Marx's fault that you failed to confirm the hours before going to the exhibit. Seriously, people need to start taking responsibility for their shortcomings. Mr. Marx already told you the hours that the documents are on display. How about you following up by going to the website or calling there to ensure you get to see the exhibit. You only have yourself to blame for your depressing start to the Independence Day holiday.

Agreed, if you are aware that

Agreed, if you are aware that thousands of people are going to see something and that that something is only available until 4pm, what time did you reasonably think you could show up?

NYPL's display of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

President, Mr. Marx; Is it not time to post and maintain the digital facsimile of these most majestic of our Nation's Founding documents? I am sure that doing so would be greatly appreciated and widely received as evidencing the New York Public Library's future forward commitment to preservation and dissemination of important records for the edification and common welfare of all, now and for posterity.

Were you waiting for your engraved invitation?

What an excellent idea, Mr. Davis. That's probably why they've already done it. Digital images of the Jefferson draft of the Declaration of Independence ( and the Bill of Rights ( are already on the NYPL website, along with hundreds of thousands of other important and interesting items. All just waiting for you to look...

You might also be interested

You might also be interested in browsing the Thomas Addis Emmet collection 1483-1876 [bulk 1700-1800] online. "approximately 10,800 historical manuscripts relating chiefly to the period prior to, during, and following the American Revolution. The collection contains letters and documents by the signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as nearly every prominent historical figure of the period." Look for EM. 1524 United States. Congress, Continental, 1775–1789 Document (July 4, 1776)

High resolution images

Here are high-resolution images of the Bill of Rights: Digital Collections is in beta, and is only showing medium-resolution images now. It will be able to show higher-resolution images before it's complete. Thanks, Matt Morgan Director of the Website The New York Public Library
And here's a a high resolution image of the Declaration--a direct link: Thanks, Matt

a correction

It should be noted that this original of the proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution that were passed by the First Federal Congress in New York City's Federal Hall in September 1789 was not "drawn up by George Washington". The Congress directed Washington to send the proposed amendments to the Governors of each of the 13 states, two of which (North Carolina and Rhode Island) had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution. Clerks to the House of Representatives and Senate wrote out 14 originals of the document, including one for the Federal Government, and Washington obeyed the directive of Congress by conveying one to each of the governors with a signed transmittal letter. There is little doubt that these proposed amendments were essentially important in convincing North Carolina and Rhode Island to ratify the Constitution and thus they served their political purpose at the time.

The libraries are apart of

The libraries are apart of the public system. "The New York Public Library"!! The people hired to work within this system must realize they are "public servants"! If NOONE uses the Libraries, the employees will be without jobs

The libraries are apart of

The libraries are apart of the public system. "The New York Public Library"!! The people hired to work within this system must realize they are "public servants"! If NOONE uses the Libraries, the employees will be without jobs. Justification for wanting to see or utilize services DO NOT require an Explanation

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