Library Blog

Harriet Shapiro: Colleague, Inspiration, Friend

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Library is grieved by the death of our longtime Head of Exhibitions, Harriet Shapiro, on July 2, following a stroke.

Harriet was a Library member, as child and adult, for over 70 years. She was deeply involved in the life of the Library for decades prior to formally joining the staff in 1997 and being named Head of Exhibitions in 2007. In those roles, she curated, co-curated, or oversaw our beautiful exhibitions and related activities. For each exhibition, this involved generating central ideas, selecting materials and images, working closely with fellow staff and outside organizations to show every element to its best advantage, and writing text for display panels, item labels, and catalogs. Harriet dove deep into everything she did, mining the Library's collection and other resources with intense interest, extensive knowledge and scholarship, and an unmatched eye for detail.

Harriet thrived behind the scenes and resisted the spotlight, but those of us fortunate enough to work with her will remember her boundless enthusiasm, irrepressible creativity, offbeat New York glamor, and constant kindness. She loved to learn and to teach, to run her latest inspiration by whoever was in earshot, and to take gorgeous photos of the neighborhood, well-dressed acquaintances, and visiting dogs. She was trilingual, articulate, artistic, and slightly nutty in perfect combination. The Library will not be the same without her. ~Sara Holliday

Learn more about Harriet's work at these exhibition links:

Barbara Ascher, member of the Library's Lecture & Exhibition Committee
Anyone at the library who knew Harriet will miss grabbing a conversation with her as she glided like an ice skater from room to room.

James Addona, Head of Development
Harriet’s intellect, generosity, and humor will be dearly missed by all of us who had the good fortune to work with her. Her excitement for exploring the Library stacks was unmatched, and her passion for sharing her discoveries with colleagues, Library members, and visitors from around the world made our corner of the city that much brighter.

Mark Bartlett, Head Librarian 2006-2015
Working as Harriet Shapiro’s supervisor as Head Librarian, I think we developed a good working relationship over the years. I was fortunate to have her as a wise counsel on the growth and future planning of exhibitions at NYSL in the mid-2000s, and was so pleased to give her the job as Head of Exhibitions in 2007. Harriet, of course, had been a presence in the Library for a long time! She knew many members, the personalities, the history and the quirkiness of the place very well. One memory is a very strong one. We were both so fortunate to work with literary icon and NYSL trustee Shirley Hazzard during the later years of her life. A number of lunch meetings and prearranged visits to Ms. Hazzard’s apartment left us both with many great memories of “our time with Shirley.” The exhibition and accompanying events were great achievements by the Library. Harriet, I will miss you so much. 

Barbara Bieck, Special Collections Librarian
Barbara co-curated the 2020 exhibition The Book Beautiful.
I associate Harriet with energy. Boundless energy. She was always moving, always on the go, always thinking and planning and happy to chat. She could take a plain concept and make it shine seemingly effortlessly, when in fact she worked tirelessly. She was dedicated to her work, to the Library and its staff. And this shone through in any conversations you had with her. During our monthly exhibitions meetings, her eyes would light up as we spoke of the Library, NYC history and strife, of our lives and shared history and family...because to talk with Harriet was to go on a whirlwind journey where you never knew where you would end up. She was passionate and compassionate, and I miss all the conversations we'd yet to have.

Kirsten Carleton, Assistant Circulation Supervisor/ILL Coordinator
The first time I met Harriet and asked about her role at the Library, she immediately gathered together a pile of catalogs from previous exhibits to show me. She was thrilled to have someone new with whom she could discuss the most exciting parts of her work. Since she sat at the desk next to mine, I would occasionally be treated to the choicest bits of her current research. “Oh,” she’d say, hanging up the phone. “I just learned the most interesting thing about loading procedures for transatlantic trading ships in the 18th century!” And then it would be interesting! Right up until her death, Harriet’s mind was keen, her curiosity endless, and her spirit generous. I’ll miss all of her.

Gayle Feldman, member writer
Harriet was one part ageless Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans's French schoolgirl, in her stripy tops, navy skirts, and flat, old-fashioned white tennis shoes, one part Audrey Hepburn, in her little black dress or black/white party attire at gallery openings, and altogether unique. She was a citizen of the world with her intrepid travels and love for France, and yet as quintessential a New Yorker as they come. She made the Library a better place. I will miss her dearly.

Jenny Lawrence, member of the Lecture & Exhibition Committee
Since 2008, with the Peluso Gallery in place, Harriet created wondrous, eye-opening exhibitions that expanded and deepened our understanding of the Library's history over the years. Her loss leaves a huge empty place in the Library's family.

Randi Levy, Head of the Children's Library
Harriet's curiosity, devotion, energy, and passion for her beloved Library were a constant presence throughout the many years we worked together. She always liked to show visitors the Children's Library, declaring it the "best place in the building." It is fitting, then, that Harriet's final completed exhibition --Quack! Quack! The Wonderful World of Robert Quackenbush—was the first one inspired by children's literature. I will miss Harriet and her enthusiasm and wicked sense of humor so much.

Carol Collins Malone, Trustee
Harriet personified the personal charm and intellectual force that makes the Library exceptional. How fortunate that we were the beneficiaries of her powerful mind and sensibilities for so many years!

Cathy McGowan, former staff member
Cathy collaborated with Harriet on exhibitions 2017-2019.
Harriet was always up for anything and up to something. She liked to suggest or say yes to an adventure. I think that's one of the reasons she travelled - that and her keen interest in the world and everyone in it. And she was always working on something in addition to what you knew she was working on. I think that's why the name on her staff locker, Harriet the Spy, was perfect. Working on projects with Harriet and the trips we took together for exhibitions (Red Cloud, Nebraska for Willa Cather, Seneca Falls and Rochester, New York for The 19th Amendment) were some of the most wonderful experiences I ever had, and I will always be grateful for those times. I know that part of her stays with me, and with all of us. She was a great friend. I loved her, admired her and learned from her, and I will always miss her.

Steve McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
There are many things I value about the 22 years I have known Harriet, but what will probably always come to mind is her excitement as she breathlessly showed off books pulled from our collection for potential display in whatever exhibition she was working on. Each book - even those that didn't make the cut - were like small miracles to Harriet. She once told me she liked to go into our Closed Stacks and listen to the books - strangely, I knew exactly what she meant. I think it will take a while to shed the urge to show Harriet some book I found in the stacks relevant to her research. Harriet was one-of-a-kind, like a figure pulled from the 19th century (but somehow skilled with an iPhone camera) to remind us to never lose sight of the Society Library's traditions and history. She always listened thoughtfully and reacted to what you said with an all-in sensitivity. She was the type of singular person that one only seems to meet in New York, and that seems drawn to life at the Society Library. I will miss her enthusiasm, her love of the Library (and my dog), the reports from her far-flung travels, talking about Leopardi, The Leopard, Arctic explorers, and our wide-ranging, occasionally downright daft, conversations about what could be found in the stacks when she was in the beginning stages of planning an exhibition.

Doreen Pastore, Communications Designer
Doreen collaborated with Harriet on the design for most of the exhibitions listed above.
I’m still saddened and missing Harriet. I was fortunate having worked with her on nine NYSL exhibitions. She could be a whirlwind of ideas, notes, images, and energy that at times seemed spiraling out of control but gradually filtered down with exceptional results. At first, I must say, I perceived her as intimidating and would dread our interactions. It’s funny, but one time having lunch on the 6th floor, not long after I started working at the Library, I noticed her eating a pepper like an apple and thought to myself she must be a nice person. That was truly the case. I started working with Harriet in 2014, helping create display labels. Not long after that I was full on with her exhibitions, starting with Broken Beauty: Ruins of the Ancient World, and the rest is history. I’m also lucky I had the chance to spend time with her outside of work, going to lunch, museums, or just walking around the city talking. She will always be in my heart.

Gretchen Rubin, Trustee
Harriet was a force and such a champion of books and culture.

Jeannette Watson Sanger, Trustee
Harriet was truly unique and special, like a unicorn. From the moment she came to the Library, at Maggie Byard’s invitation, we were fast friends. She had such tremendous dedication to the Library and put her heart into creating her exhibitions, including traveling to the Middle East for her exhibit Broken Beauty: Ruins of the Ancient World. As I write this, I am holding in my lap the exquisite catalogues of most of her exhibitions and marvel at the magic she created. Harriet adored fashion, and we attended every fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, delighting in every detail! She later created Fabulous Fashion, showcasing the Library’s collection of fashion-related books. Harriet herself had her own personal style, some of her outfits created by a dressmaker on 23rd Street. She wore her wonderful clothes in a low-key way, so one had to really study them to notice all the details. She was a wonderful friend, and I adored our lunches together. We mainly discussed the Library, and I so enjoyed having a privileged peek behind the scenes. I cannot say how much I shall miss her, with her intelligence, lively conversation, enthusiasm, and generous spirit. Goodbye, dear friend.

Betty Kelly Sargent, Trustee
Harriet was such a major, creative force on the staff of the library.  A gentle, modest and inspiring woman.

Linnea Holman Savapoulas, Circulation Assistant
It's so hard to put into words how much someone has made an impact on your life. I still expect to see Harriet walk through the front door, glide up the steps (because that is what Harriet did) and greet me at the circulation desk "Hi, Linnea!" and continue into the staff workroom. On Saturdays, when the workroom was empty, we would sit at my desk and chat about life in general and our beloved Library. Recently my grandson and son-in-law came to pick me up. Harriet shared a story with them of my daughter sitting under my desk when she was a child, reading. She would frequently remind of me that day. She loved seeing someone as in love with books as she was. Then Harriet made sure to tell me to bring them to see the exhibit upstairs. "Oh, you must go! It's called Quack, Quack!!" And she laughed her fabulous laugh! I will miss that. RIP dear Harriet.

Carolyn Waters, Head Librarian
Harriet found the beauty in absolutely everything. If she was excited about a discovery - it could be an image, a snippet of new information culled from her extensive research, or even the fact that a colleague had recently undertaken to learn her beloved French language - everyone knew about it. She shared her exuberance for life and learning with us all. When she found the image that was to ultimately adorn the Fabulous Fashion catalog and banners, she swooped in to make sure “the Head” (her moniker for me) saw it first. She couldn’t contain her excitement when our Book Conservator (probably reluctantly) agreed to showcase our 1778 double folio with plates signed by Francesco Piranesi, for one night only at the Broken Beauty reception! Her enthusiasm for the Library, its storied history, and the exhibitions that she developed and created from her deep dives into the stacks were infectious. (And oh! her love of the open stacks! She often led bemused gallery talk visitors on unplanned jaunts through the book stacks, like the pied piper.) I can’t imagine the Library without her. Adieu, Harriet.

Marialuisa Monda, Events Assistant
I never got a chance to say my last words to you.
Sometimes that is the way of the world - a quick exhale that no one is ready for.
Some things, as sad as it is, as bittersweet as life could be, remain unfinished.
There never be one last joke or memory, sometimes the now is all that we have.
I have too many things to say. The "I love yous" and the secret smiles - you were always one of my favorite people.
But, saying adieu and ciao feel like empty words, especially when you are here now with me in another form. 
Let’s  not say goodbye but a “see you someday”
In a world of dust-scented books and clementines,
Of the memories we shared and those that could have been,
over bellyaching laughter,
Of inside jokes and open secrets,
Sometimes in a different language through stacks and reading spaces -
Yes, let’s never say goodbye at all.

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