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N.Y. Public Library, Norman Foster Evict a Million Books

New York Public Library
One of a pair of stone lions, the symbol of the marble-clad New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The library plans to renovate the 1911 building to consolidate two branch circulating libraries with the research collections. Photographer: James. S. Russell/Bloomberg

A $300 million renovation of the New York Public Library’s ornate marble palace in midtown Manhattan will start by evicting 1.2 million books.

The plan, unveiled today and overseen by the London firm of Foster & Partners, keeps more books onsite than had been suggested in earlier proposals. Books will be stored in space under Bryant Park and in a Princeton, New Jersey, facility.

Many of the ousted books are now available digitally or rarely requested, which may mollify some of the proposal’s prominent critics.

The books’ absence makes room for the most dramatic aspect of the Central Library Plan: curving balconies of bookshelves and reading tables that will look out over Bryant Park.

The project, announced by the library’s president, Anthony Marx, will bring the circulating collections from two branch libraries into the building.

Foster’s plan is expected to both make and save money. How?

The dilapidated Mid-Manhattan Library, across the street, will be sold once the new facility has been built; ditto the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th Street.

The proceeds will underwrite much of this epic reorganization, though a one-shot real-estate deal won’t fix the library’s long-term financial needs.

And moving out millions of books to bring in the circulating collections has antagonized researchers and writers.

More Money

In an interview in his wood-paneled library office, Marx said: “We need to provide a better experience for our users and have more money to do it.”

From his point of view, everybody wins: The books in the stacks will be better protected, the Mid-Manhattan Library will get a sparkling new facility without having to close, and the library will receive more money to spend on operations.

His argument is persuasive as far as it goes.

Right now, the 1911 library, whose grand marble entry on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street is flanked by beloved stone lions, is the busiest research library open to the public in the U.S.

In the future, patrons wishing to take out a book will proceed in a straight line from the vaulted Fifth Avenue entrance through the soaring columns of the renovated Gottesman exhibition hall.

They’ll enter the former book-storage space on a balcony that looks out to Bryant Park through an atrium that unites four floors of books, computer stations and reading tables. Pairs of gracefully curving stairs also link the collections. Imagine everything bathed in slanting bands of sunlight.

The Foster layout would make more of the building’s splendors publicly accessible.

More Space

A grim hallway and surrounding office space centrally located on the second floor will be renovated to augment space for writers working on projects. A vastly expanded children and teen area will open up underused space on the ground floor.

The plan can’t succeed if the sale of the branch libraries doesn’t spin off lots of cash.

Augmenting a promised $150 million from the city, the library hopes to raise $200 million by selling the two branches. With gifts and operational savings, the library expects to realize $15 million annually to hire more librarians and purchase more materials.

But real-estate deals always pose risks for a cultural institution. (The nearby Donnell Library, closed for four years, still awaits a commercial tower that’s supposed to be its new home.)

Floor Supports

And the renovation is complex. That’s because the bookshelves’ dense mesh of solid-steel panels supports the building’s third floor. A contractor will have to hack through the thicket to install new columns and beams before the rest of the stacks can be removed.

Moving out the research collection pits Marx against hundreds of vocal academics and writers who include Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Lethem. They want the three million books that would be displaced to stay right where they are.

The Rose Main Reading Room with its elaborately carved wood ceiling and massive chandeliers, has nurtured generations of writers, who have been able to call up any of the books in the library’s vast underground trove.

Far Away

While the reading room’s splendor and function will not be altered, sending books 60 miles away makes them only nominally accessible, though the library promises a 24-hour turnaround on requests.

It seems obvious to me that the New York Public Library should avoid downgrading books at a time when most people are happy with whatever they can find on Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the Foster design, perhaps to avoid further enflaming opponents, proffers graceless skinny columns rising through the atrium to a flimsy looking parasol-shaped ceiling. In a brief telephone conversation, Foster said he was still studying the ceiling and walls.

I hope so. This thin architectural gruel defers to the spare-no-expense grandeur underwritten by a clutch of early 20th-century financial titans. The library is one of the greatest works of the architecture firm Carrere & Hastings, and won’t be defaced. But Foster’s work should energize not enervate.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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