There are few sacred spaces in midtown Manhattan, but the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library is one of them. Beneath the soaring 52-foot-high, wood-paneled ceiling studded with Poussin-tinted murals, it is as imposing as a Medici palace and as crowded as a train station.
Books, of course, line the walls on raised platforms, more than 40,000 reference works in this room alone. At one end is the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts, which houses some of the library’s treasures, including a Gutenberg Bible (currently on display) and a letter from Columbus announcing his discovery of the New World. At the other end of this cavernous space, nearly the length of two city blocks, is the Art and Architecture Collection, which houses historical exhibition and auction catalogs, as well as more than 110,000 files on individual artists and their works.
At any given time of the day, though, most of the activity occurs in the middle. A tall wooden counter runs down the reading room, where patrons can order and pick up books from almost 40 miles of underground stacks. Forty-two long oak tables topped with brass lamps stretch out on either side, and they usually are packed with hundreds of people, one of whom might be writing the next Great American Novel or Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. Something in the air makes it easy to dream of grand projects.
In his paneled office one floor below the reading room, within sight of the two marble lions (named Patience and Fortitude) that guard the Fifth Avenue entrance, the library’s new president, Anthony Marx *86 *90, reflects on the diversity one finds there.
“We are committed to making it possible for the 18 million visitors who come into our facilities every year to do that thinking work, at a time in history when there isn’t enough thinking work coming on,” he says. “I think the public library is the place where people of economic, racial, geographic, and interest differences across the board come together in one place. That doesn’t happen very much in our society anymore.”
Marx’s vision is almost as inspiring as the reading room itself, but in his first months on the job, after eight years as president of Amherst College, he has had to devote his attention to more pressing — and less lofty — problems. For the time being, at least, he has convinced the city to restore nearly $37 million of $40 million in cuts to the library’s budget, averting what the ever-pithy local press dubbed the Bibliopocalypse. Branches will continue to be open five days a week, which is particularly important because usage of the library, Marx quickly points out, is rising, no matter how one measures it —– whether in terms of patron visits, books borrowed, research requests filed, or e-books downloaded. If this really is a palace, Marx is trying to keep the barbarians from the gate.
In fact, the New York Public Library is many things. It is one of the nation’s pre-eminent research libraries as well as the largest circulating library in the world. The iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, as the main library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue officially is known, celebrated its centennial this year, but there are also three other nonlending research libraries, four main lending libraries, a library for the blind and physically disabled, and 77 branch libraries scattered across Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens have their own independent library systems.) With more than 63 million items, its collection, in terms of size, ranks behind only the Library of Congress and the British Library. Collectively, the public library system employs 1,900 people and has an annual budget of $260 million, about two-thirds of which comes from the city and state and the rest from private donations and endowment funds.
The Schwarzman Building, and the Rose Reading Room within it, has served as one of the nation’s most important centers for creative thinking. Author and literary critic Alfred Kazin once wrote, “There was something about the ... light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning smooth the tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted — that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”
The list of those who have done scholarly work here is impressive, including E.L. Doctorow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Robert Caro ’57, who researched and wrote parts of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, The Power Broker and The Path to Power, in the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room, still recalls with gratitude the assistance of librarians who took the trouble to help him dig up obscure volumes of Texas history. The library also made it possible for him, then a young and unproven journalist, to work alongside giants such as Barbara Tuchman and James Thomas Flexner and rising star Susan Brownmiller.
“It was the first place I ever had to talk about problems of writing with other writers,” Caro says, the gratitude still evident in his voice. “I felt like it was a home to me, and I’ve felt that all my life.”
As reading and writing habits change, however, and books become less defined as words on paper and increasingly as symbols on a screen, the library must adapt — and it must do so after weathering large cuts in budget and personnel. It now circulates more e-books than any library in the country. Last year there were more than 24 million visits to the library’s online databases and catalog, which has been transformed to simplify browsing through the massive collection. For what it is worth, Marx says that he still reads the old-fashioned way, although he admits that he looks longingly at fellow subway riders absorbed in their Kindles. (“I’ll get there,” he promises. “I’ll get there.”)
The road to e-reading has not been without bumps, however, although they are not of the library’s making. Random House is the only major publisher that currently allows libraries unlimited access to its e-books. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan do not provide e-books to libraries at all, and in November, Penguin announced that it will stop making new e-books available to libraries. Although Penguin cited security concerns, as in the music industry, publishers seem to be uncertain how to make money in a digital world.
In addition to e-books and audio books, the library offers Freegal, an online music-sharing service that enables patrons to download up to three songs a week for free from the Sony catalog. Naturally, there is a New York Public Library app for mobile devices. The library has embraced social media: Its Twitter account has more than 100,000 followers, and it is the most popular public library on Facebook, with a presence on Flickr and Tumblr as well.
In 2004, the library became one of five libraries to partner with Google to digitize titles in the public domain. (Princeton later joined the consortium.) The New York library contributed half a million volumes from its collection, but Google Books has been bogged down in litigation by publishers and authors who claim they were not being properly compensated for their works. (In 2011, federal judge Denny Chin ’75 rejected a proposed settlement, saying that it would have granted Google a “de facto monopoly” in the online book market.) All Marx will say about the project is that “we, the publishing industry, Google, [and] Amazon all need to find a solution that meets the legitimate requirements of the court to protect property rights and the revenue stream for authors who produce work.”
Although the library is digitizing other items in its massive collection, including archives and manuscripts, the physical library will not disappear anytime soon. Marx observes that in the last 12 months, New Yorkers bought 10 million e-books but borrowed 12 million traditional books from the public library. If anything, library usage has increased during the last few years, in part because of the economy (people may be borrowing books rather than buying them), but also because the library is providing more public services, stepping in as the rest of city government retrenches.
The library’s Job Search Central at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue, for example, offers job postings, career databases, and résumé-preparation help. The library has offered such programs for decades, and Marx likes to point out that Barack Obama found his Chicago community-organizing job in the mid-1980s at the mid-Manhattan branch’s job bank. The library also offers classes in English as a second language and after-school reading programs, along with assistance in tax preparation, starting a business, and retirement planning. Add to that free exhibitions, films, and lectures by prominent authors daily.