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New York Public Library treasures hidden below Bryant Park

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NEW YORK (MYFOXNY) -

Thousands sun themselves and eat lunch and ice skate in Bryant Park every day, completely oblivious to the vaults buried 30 feet beneath the park, holding treasures found nowhere else in the world.

We followed a box of books from a reading room in the New York Public Library's Schwarzman building down a conveyor belt to the entrance of one of those vaults, but curators stopped us there. Post-9/11, only a select few library employees may visit those secret stacks.

"[We have more than] 30,000 linear feet of archival material documenting individuals, families and corporations," Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Archives Thomas Lannon said.

Lannon unlocked for us writing samples from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Each founding father's notebook revealed a colonial affinity for booze: Washington's personal beer recipe and the $273 Jefferson spent on wine in one month -- in 18th-Century dollars.

"A lot of this is unpublished," Lannon said, "which means you can't find it anywhere else, but the library."

In an empty Rose Reading Room before the building opened, Monday, we found a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, but also the Steinbecks and Hawthornes and Twains one would expect a library to own. But if you preferred "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" in draft form and written in Mark Twain's longhand, you had to travel upstairs to visit Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

"It's the way parents talk about children," Gewirtz said of the items in his collection. "You really can't pick a favorite."

Gewirtz then proceeded to pick a favorite: The original manuscript of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." He also showed us Shakespeare's nearly 400-year-old first folio, Jack Kerouac's fantasy baseball rosters, the desk from which Charles Dickens wrote his novels and a letter opener given to that author with the taxidermied paw of his late cat "Bob" fixed to its handle

"Many of these books are not available and never will be available in any other form than what we have on the shelf," Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection curator, Elizabeth Denlinger, said.

Denlinger works alone in a small room down the hall from Isaac and Bob the Cat's dried-out foot, surrounded by a collection devoted to the author of Frankenstein's poet husband and his circle of friends, family and influencers. The Pforzheimer Collection prefers its preserved body parts in human form: Denlinger displayed for us fragments from Mary Shelley's skull and a lock of the author's hair.

"Romantic scholars don't have to be convinced to care," Denlinger said, "because this is the largest collection of its kind in the western hemisphere."

The library also owns the death mask of psychedelic-drug aficionado Timothy Leary, molded from his face right before or after he died.

Less morbid (or maybe just lost?) visitors might visit hard copies of the 450,000 maps, some dating back to the 15th century, in the Schwarzman building's map division. And former children (that's all of us) can see the store-bought stuffed animals A.A. Milne gave to his son before deciding: Hmm, maybe I should write some stories about these toys and change that Pooh Bear's name from "Henry" to "Winnie."

"We're still a repository of knowledge in the way that libraries are supposed to be," Denlinger said, "and libraries are much more accessible places than museums."

Out front, Patience and Fortitude -- the lions Teddy Roosevelt wished to replace with American buffalo -- still stand watch over 5th Avenue Out back, park-goers lounge in the shine of the sun and the shadows of a library holding more than just books, a library of secrets and treasures.

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