New Year Brings Changes for Library’s Main Branch



The main branch of the New York Public Library will soon undergo renovations to incorporate a circulation library into what is now mainly a research library. Photo: Morgan M. Davis.

A few feet back from the noise and chaos of Midtown Manhattan, the New York Public Library (NYPL) Stephen A. Schwarzman building dominates a city block.  The iconic building, guarded for over a century by its imperial lions, stands as an intellectual haven amid the city’s holiday shopping craze.  As tourists mount the stone steps and pose for photos, local students and scholars hurry past to grab a space at one of the many long wood tables that line the study rooms on the third floor.

“I want to go somewhere that has a story to tell,” said Didem Civginoglu, a 34-year-old student from Istanbul.  “I don’t want to stay at home and I don’t want to stay at a café with too much music.  If I want to go to a library I want to go to a good one.”

The main branch of the NYPL functions mainly as a research library, but also as a study space, circulating children’s library, and public computer center; it is also a city historic landmark, rentable space, and home to historic exhibitions.  The building, which shares the block with Bryant Park, attracts almost 2 million visitors annually.

Next year the main branch building will begin a five-year renovation project, with final design plans scheduled to be unveiled to the public December 19.  These interior changes, part of the city’s long-range Central Library Plan to update library buildings and redistribute resources, will open up more of the building to the public.  The library’s 42nd Street main branch building, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and recently underwent a façade restoration, will incorporate a circulation library from the collections of the to-be-closed Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library.  While the building has long been used as a research library and study space for local academics and students, library officials hope to make the main branch more accessible to general community users as well.

“Many New Yorkers have told us they look at our 42nd Street building as a ‘museum’ or something inaccessible to them,” said Angela Montefinise, NYPL Director of Public Relations and Marketing.  “This building was meant to be ‘The People’s Palace,’ and this will restore us to that original mission.”

The plans to reinvent the library’s interior have been met with much controversy.  In a 2011 article in The Nation, NYPL president Anthony Marx said that the renovations would “replace books with people,” words that ignited a firestorm of controversy as scholars protested that the library would become just an oversized Starbucks.  The main branch did, in fact, add a New York City based ‘wichcraft cart to its lobby in March, offering visitors coffee, sandwiches and treats before they mount the winding stairs to the reading rooms.

While the most vocal opponents of the renovations have been academics using the library for research purposes, many of the average library users are  people in the neighborhood looking for a place to study or read with mixed understandings of how the construction will impact them.  “There’s no space in New York that’s quite like it,” said Kate Arline, a 32-year-old economics student who regularly uses the library as a study space.  “It’s inspiring.”

“Noise distracts me, so this is a good place to stay focused,” said Jared Jimenez, a 23-year-old theology student.  Instead of sitting in a coffee shop to wait for friends, Jimenez opts for the “tranquility” of the library to read his book.

The extensive plans for the Schwarzman building will include the return of a public circulation library, a service that was originally offered in the building when it opened in 1911.  The new circulation library will incorporate all of the books and services now offered at the Mid-Manhattan Library on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue and the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th Street.  Those libraries will be permanently closed upon completion of construction, saving the NYPL $15 million per year.

In order to incorporate the demand for space without altering the preserved building, the library is forced to grow underground, pushing its rows of books below Bryant Park.  The future circulation library will replace what are now outdated book shelves storing research material on the west side of the library – but after original plans to move many of the research books to storage in New Jersey were met with uproar, trustees altered their original plan to instead move the stacks under Bryant Park. An $8 million donation from a trustee will allow for the basement stacks to be updated and expanded, giving the library room for another 1.5 million books.  Any materials not stored in this area will be available for researchers either digitally or within 24 hours.

While visitors and residents in the area near Times Square sit outside the library to eat their lunches or read a book, many haven’t been inside the building.  Victoria White, a 17-year-old from Long Island, spent her Saturday sitting outside the library sketching drawings of the stone lions.  While the library’s outdoor area with lunch tables and chairs is “good to have in a crazy area,” she said, the inside of the research library has little appeal to her.  She’s been inside the library just once, for about five minutes.

Nearby, 17-year-old Jaroly Sanchez, a Fashion Institute of Technology student, sat with her headphones in her ears, clicking away on her smartphone while she waited for friends to work on a photo shoot.  While the library “looks interesting,” she’s never had time to go inside, she said.

“As of now the main library functions somewhat differently than a traditional branch,” said Montefinise.  “Under this new plan, we will be able to seamlessly enhance the research functions and the offerings for tourists while preserving our historic spaces and bringing in a community library. New Yorkers deserve to use this renowned landmark, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

For New York residents like 22-year-old Aaron Riesebeck, who has been inside the library once, the library’s plan to become more community friendly is appealing.  “Until I started coming down to Bryant Park I didn’t even realize there was a library here,” said Riesebeck.  “[The circulation library] would probably help more people like me realize it’s down here.”

The library will also feature a new teen center and an expansion of the existing children’s library, which was added in 2008.  Currently tucked into a downstairs corner, a brightly-colored room fitted with child-sized chairs and tables and decorated with the animal characters from popular books serves as a tiny oasis for the city’s youngest readers.  The children’s center houses a small circulation library and hosts a variety of activities, like toddler story time and family read aloud, for kids up to age 12.

Bea Murphy travels two subway stops with her five-year-old daughter almost every week to listen to pre-school story time and check out books and DVDs. “Instead of buying a whole library’s worth of books,” Murphy said, the two can borrow new books each week, and attend the library’s age appropriate programs.  “It’s kind of cool to borrow books,” said Murphy.  “It’s a sense of community … It teaches the children responsibility.”

The library’s modification of space for circulating books will not cut into current research and study space, and will be kept separate from the research side of the building.  The much loved Rose Main Reading Room will not be changed at all, and researchers will be given increased quiet spaces.  In addition, the updated library will be open 12 hours on most days, as opposed to the eight hours it is open on most days now.

Despite the controversy over the changes, the NYPL is optimistic about the response to the announcement of the plans next week, Montefinise said.

“[The library] does reflect the city itself,” said Rebecca Wrobel, a 24-year-old library visitor.  “There’s a life and warmth in there.”