Workspace: An Insider’s View of the New York Public Library

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Michele Coleman Mayes is the general counsel of the New York Public Library.

Two stately greeters

We have 88 branches of the library in the city, 92 if I include the research branches. I’m at headquarters, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, which has the lion statues, Patience and Fortitude, out front.

Working in a treasure trove

To fully appreciate the building, you need to stop and study the different elements. There are so many hidden treasures, like the fruits and other flora in the marble above the door to my office. I’m always noticing new details in the ornate ironwork or the marble, and I’m often struck by the skill and artistry that went into making this building so beautiful.

It’s in the details

My office has traditional chairs and a desk with a 1960s look. There’s also a leather door to nowhere that must be left over from a renovation.

I’m an avid art collector and have displayed pieces from my collection wherever I’ve worked. A mixed-media piece by Charly Palmer depicts Martin Luther King Jr. standing in line to vote with one of his daughters. Every time I look at it, I see something new or from a different perspective.

There’s a slave ship; a little boy holding a sign that says, “I’m too young to vote. What’s your excuse?”; and images of the Ku Klux Klan. The painting portrays a time when large segments of the country didn’t even pretend to be inclusive. To fully enjoy it you must pause; if you don’t you’ll miss something, much like with this building.

Art in the family

My younger sister, Greta Pitts Moore, an artist, painted the fan. I credit her with teaching me to love art at an early age.

A different kind of map

When I left Pitney Bowes, the first company where I served as general counsel, the staff gave me a caricature that maps my career.

People have told me it shows my sense of style. I love big, bold jewelry. It also has me pulling a wagon filled with African art.

Not always well behaved

The co-founder of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas Law School nominated me for a Hortense Ward Courageous Leader Award. She sent me the feminist plaque after I won. I attached a pin to it that says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

I’m not a rabble-rouser, but I’m not always well behaved. I tend to get the attention of those around a conference table when I feel strongly about something.

Remembrances

Before this position, I was general counsel at Allstate, the property and casualty company. The company gave me this heavy crystal car, a replica of the first one they insured, when I retired from there.

I was raised in Detroit, the hub of the auto industry, so the car also has personal significance to me.

The piece of glass with “Detroit” written on it was a gift from a friend who still lives there. He sent it to me in case I ever get homesick.

Mentoring, with a book

I wrote a book with Kara Baysinger, “Courageous Counsel: Conversations With Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500.” It’s a virtual mentoring tool, written from the perspective of a lawyer, chronicling the rise of women in the Fortune 500.

Listen, then read

You’ll often find me at our Live From the N.Y.P.L. events, which feature interviews with artists, writers and thought leaders, and I end up collecting their books. I have Gloria Steinem’s and Mike Tyson’s, among others. Typically the talks are held here, often in the Celeste Bartos Forum.

Underground storage

I often give tours of the library. The last group was from N.J. LEEP, for the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project, which assists college-bound students from the Newark area.

I took them underground, to our Milstein Research Stacks underneath Bryant Park. I’d had a curator assemble original versions of the Federalist Papers and works by Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King for them. The students had been studying these, so they were thrilled.

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