Literary lion

The New York Public Library is one for the books

It is perhaps no small irony that one of the most august institutions in New York is also among the city’s most democratic.

The New York Public Library, as encapsulated by the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street in Manhattan, is the quintessence of the stately, richly ornamented Beaux Arts style that defined New York in the Gilded Age. But its enduring mission is to provide free information and enlightenment to everyone.

“That’s how the library was founded,” says Ann Thornton, the warm, articulate Andrew W. Mellon director of The New York Public Library. “This was a very important facet in its founding. It’s even inscribed over the fireplace in the Trustees’ Room that the library should be ‘for the free use of all the people.’”

By way of introduction

The library – a private nonprofit that operates in partnership with the city – is, of course, much more than the iconic Schwarzman Building, a research library specializing in the humanities. There are three other reference libraries – the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, at Lincoln Center; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; and the Science, Industry and Business Library near the Empire State Building – along with 89 lending libraries throughout the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens have separate library systems, because they weren’t part of New York when the library was incorporated in 1895. The five boroughs didn’t unite to become what we know as New York City until three years later. Still, The New York Public Library works closely with its Brooklyn and Queens’ counterparts, Thornton says.

Second only to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., The New York Public Library system has 65 million items, including 14 million books as well as maps, photographs and other archival materials. It’s so vast that it can be hard to wrap your mind around it. But a tour of the Schwarzman Building with excellent guide Julie North Chelminski offers bookworms invaluable insight into how the library sees itself and how you might consider it.

The main floor

You breeze up the front steps past Patience and Fortitude, the stone lions who guard the library in noble silence, to step into Astor Hall, the library’s “front parlor,” if indeed a front parlor could be a vaulted space that achieves its soaring, timeless majesty through a series of cleverly placed Romanesque arches of Vermont marble. The hallway just beyond is made of Pentelic marble from the same Greek quarry that fed the Parthenon, which reinforces the beauty and democracy of the Schwarzman Building.

Among the spaces on the main floor are an information desk, a café, The Library Shop, the Lional Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division and the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, where through Feb. 17 you can view “Lunch Hour NYC,” the latest of the library’s superb visual arts offerings. (This writer remembers with particular rapture the poetic “Diamonds Are Forever” exhibit on baseball art and literature as well as a show on John Milton and “Paradise Lost.”)

Pay close attention to the interior of the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room with its tributes to New York publishing by muralist Richard Haas. The room – which has 10,000 periodicals in 22 languages – was designed by John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, the Schwarzman Building’s architects. They were the youngest and least experienced of the architects who were invited to submit plans for the library. But they had been trained at the prestigious École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and had worked at McKim, Mead and White, the leading firm of the day, one that did much to put a Beaux Arts stamp on New York. Carrére and Hastings proved to be the right choice. Their periodical room – with its stucco and plaster masquerading as wood and intricately carved to reveal putti, fruited garlands and arabesques – is the quintessence of Beaux Arts beauty.

Going up

The second floor is really set aside for scholars, writers and special collections that are not open to the general public. Nevertheless, just being able to peek at a desk that once belonged to Charles Dickens, to know that you are a heartbeat away from a collection dedicated to the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and his circle is enough to hearten the reader/writer.

The third floor is really where the action is for library users. You may think it odd that the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and the sweeping Rose Main Reading Room, named for the children of philanthropists Frederick P. and Sandra Priest Rose (see related story), should be located on the third floor. But this layout was key to the vision of John Shaw Billings, a prominent Civil War surgeon and the library’s first director, who wanted patrons to ascend to knowledge. This idea is crystallized by a reverse apotheosis, painted on the ceiling of The McGraw Rotunda, in which Prometheus brings down fire from Heaven, symbol of the galvanizing power of knowledge.

Billings was one of two men who shaped The New York Public Library, Thornton says. The other was its first president, John Bigelow – diplomat, bibliophile and an executor of former New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden’s estate, which provided the financial resources for the nascent library. (The materials came from the private libraries of tycoons John Jacob Astor and James Lenox.)

“Bigelow saw it as his purpose to build the Tilden library in Bryant Park,” Thornton says.

And so The New York Public Library was created on the site of the old Croton Reservoir over a 12-year period, opening in 1911. The final cost was $9,002,523, or more than $205 million today.

Shelter from the storm

It’s on the third floor that one of those Prometheus-carried lightning bolts hits you: Libraries – and The New York Public Library in particular – are the equivalents of the medieval cathedral, serving as socio-cultural centers. Indeed, offering reference and lending materials is only one-third of what The New York Public Library system does.

“There are public programs, classes and training sessions, with ESL (English as a Second Language) as a huge focus. The library is the place many children go to after school. It reflects the community’s wide interest.”

This was never more apparent than after Hurricane Sandy. Most of the branches reopened the Thursday after the superstorm hit.

“We were absolutely packed, with regular library activities and people just eager to get back into the community,” Thornton says. “There were regular users and first-time users, people searching for jobs, school assignments, people coming to plug in.”

For some, the library remains their connection to bandwidth. The Edna Barnes Salomon Room has been transformed into a wireless Internet reading and study room where laptops are on loan.

“We’re straddling both,” Thornton says of the print and digital worlds. “We’re still using paper, but there are also increasing demands for technology and access to electronic books.”

The tension between print and digital was a backdrop to some recent articles on planned renovations for the Schwarzman Building, which would bring the deteriorating Mid-Manhattan Library into the fold, creating an additional 80,000 square feet and ultimately, the largest reference/circulating library in the world. But what would happen to the fabled seven levels of book stacks beneath the football field-size Rose Main Reading Room? Would materials be going the way of the e-universe?

The cloud of controversy has dissipated. Thanks to a generous trustee and a revised plan, there will be additional stacks built under Bryant Park. The $300-million project will take five years, as the library will remain open.

“Change is always very difficult,” Thornton observes, “especially when the change is as important as The New York Public Library.”

But ultimately, it will be change for the better, she says, bringing the Schwarzman Building full circle. It had been a lending library until the economic crisis of the 1970s.

Now The New York Public Library is headed back to its glorious future.


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