Monday, November 23, 2009

HEADS OR TAILS: The Library of the American Numismatic Society

On November 17th, I had the opportunity to attend the Beta Phi Mu annual fall event in NYC at the American Numismatic Society. This is the second Beta Phi Mu event in New York that I’ve attended. Last fall, I met members of the Theta Chapter while we toured The Horticulture Society of New York and got a private and revealing look at their library. This year, I’ll admit to being nervous before sending in my RSVP. I will be up front and confess; I had no idea what the word “numismatic” meant. I had never seen or heard that word before. A trusty visit to the dictionary reveals that numismatic, an adjective, is “of or relating to coins or currency.”

The idea of a library dedicated to coins and currency may sound silly, but I was pleasant surprised by how much I enjoyed the tour of both the immense numismatic collection and the modern and cozy numismatic library. Elizabeth Hahn, the only full-time librarian the society employs, was on hand to give us our specialized tour and talk about all the Numismatic Library had to offer. The collection of the society includes over 800,000 materials. While “American” may be in their title the collection includes many coins and forms of currency from other countries, including a large amount from the Greeks and Romans. During the tour, we were treated to see early Japanese currency which looked more like tools than a form of payment. The collection also includes casts in which the coins were made, many of which were from early Nicaragua. Seeing the casts was a highlight and perhaps my favorite part. We got to go inside a gigantic coin vault, too.

The event was small and intimate. There were, at most, about 30 members of the honor society and guests present. We were divided into two groups. Early arrivers got to go on a tour of the numismatic collection. I opted to wait for the second tour with Beta Phi Mu officer and fellow NYPL librarian Alexandra Nadar from the Van Nest branch, more for solidarity than anything else. Alexandra and I mingled with the people who were delayed from traffic or the weather (it was a little rainy that night), then went on the second tour while the first group came back and mingled themselves. Directly after the tour, Elizabeth Hahn gave us a short presentation on the history of the library and how the entire location has been moved to three different locations in the past decade. With only a part time cataloger to aid her, the amount of time and work Elizabeth has put into the library to make it great, both as a resource for the society and for the general public is inspiring. She was also sure to note that the library is open to everyone.


The tour was definitely worth the time and relevant for my work as a librarian. I get asked at least once a month about the value of coins while working for the New York Public Library in the Bronx. Other than two or three reference books we have on hand, I really didn’t know of any other library to refer patrons who were serious about looking up the information about their coin collections. This library was built expressly for that purpose. Elizabeth mentioned she gets an average of five or six patrons a week. I am going to do my best to see that number go up (she also may have internships available for library students). For any coin question, it’s the first and best resource in New York City.

~Ryan P. Donovan is a senior librarian with the New York Public Library. You can read his personal blog here.

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