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.

Undated photo of the Rose Reading Room.
Undated photo of the Rose Reading Room.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Perhaps most important, the New York Public Library provides a bridge across the digital divide. According to a March 2010 study funded by the Gates Foundation, one-third of Americans rely on their libraries for computers and Internet access. The library has 3,600 computers in its various branches, and approximately 5 million sessions are logged on them each year. There’s an old observation that the Department of Motor Vehicles is one of the only places in American society where people from all classes and income levels still interact — but Marx would add the public library.

“As the increase in dependence on digital reading moves across society,” he says, “one of our concerns is that those who can’t afford the physical books or the subscriptions to books online will get left out. Not only would that be a tragic result of a technology that wants access to increase, but if the bottom third of our society can no longer get access to books and ideas to read, we won’t have an informed citizenry, we won’t have a skilled workforce, we won’t have a functioning democracy or economy.”

Marx also appreciates the library’s importance as an educational institution. In early November, it announced a pilot partnership with the New York City Department of Education that will enable teachers in 50 public schools to order library books online and have them delivered directly to their classrooms. Students in those schools also will get library cards. Marx told The Wall Street Journal that he hopes to secure additional funding to expand the program to all city public schools within a few years. Down the road, Marx imagines a Library Corps, modeled on Teach for America, which would recruit college graduates to help train inner-city students to do research and use their libraries.

Such concerns made Marx a good fit for the library. “The New York Public Library is central to the kind of civil society I have worked so much of my life to build,” he said when he accepted the job. After graduating magna cum laude from Yale in 1981, he spent a year in South Africa as the anti-apartheid movement neared success. He maintained ties to South Africa even as he earned an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School in 1986, followed by a Ph.D. in 1990, helping to found Khanya College in Johannesburg, one of the first preparatory schools to train black students. Those experiences seared in him an understanding of inequality and a desire to do something about it.

He spent 13 years at Columbia, as a professor and director of the undergraduate political science program, where he also published three books and founded a program to attract and train public school teachers in poor neighborhoods. In 2003, at the age of 44, he became the youngest president in Amherst’s history. Like many college presidents at the time, he presided over a building boom, which included 13 new or refurbished dormitories and a cogeneration plant, and approved the creation of new majors in environmental studies and film and media studies. In 2006, he also secured $13 million from the Argosy Foundation to fund a Center for Community Engagement.

Perhaps Marx’s greatest legacy, however, was his determination to make traditionally preppy Amherst more diverse. “Ladies and gentlemen, the passive approach to letting talent rise is not working,” he declared in his 2004 Commencement address. “[I]njustices of race and of class both must be addressed with open eyes.”

Address it Marx did. The college increased financial aid to low-income students, following Princeton in replacing student loans with grants and in offering need-blind admission to international students. It used other strategies, too: giving poor students an edge when it came to SAT scores, visiting a wider range of high schools, accepting community-college students as transfers. It brought results: During Marx’s tenure, the number of applications for admission nearly doubled, the proportion of undergraduates who qualified for Pell grants for low-income students grew by 48 percent, and the number of minority and international students also shot up.

As Marx is fully aware, fundraising is as important for a library president as it is for a college president, but it is a job he seems to approach with zeal. “My belief about fundraising,” he explains, “in part based on my experience at Amherst, is that if you have a vision of something important to do that people share, it is possible to find those who will be generous in making that possible. I’m betting my career that that will be the case.”

Marx will need to raise more money from new sources lest budgetary straits bring about the Bibliopocalypse after all. Since 2008, the library’s workforce has been reduced by 27 percent, requiring a consolidation of the research and branch libraries, which had been operated separately. The acquisition budget for books, CDs, and DVDs has been cut by 26 percent. Under Marx’s predecessor, Paul LeClerc, the library closed reading rooms for its Slavic and Baltic and Asian and Middle Eastern divisions. Though the budget-cutting moves have frustrated scholars and angered staff members, they have helped make the library system more efficient, says David Offensend ’75, its senior vice president and chief financial and administrative officer. The library has long been aggressive in raising money by, for example, selling naming rights to particular rooms and the Schwarzman Building itself, but Offensend predicts that it still will have to find new revenue sources. One such effort already has paid off: A $300,000 donation from McGraw-Hill last summer enabled the library to forgive overdue book fees for children and teens.

The Schwarzman Building is undergoing a $1.2 billion renovation, which will see 3 million little-used volumes moved from the back stacks to offsite storage space the public library shares with Princeton and Columbia at the Forrestal campus. That will free up 1.25 million cubic feet of space, a quarter of the building, to provide more room for children’s reading programs, computer terminals, meeting rooms, and a café. Many critics have complained that the project would change the building’s character and make it harder for patrons to get books when they want them, and that the money could be better used to support other services. The library, however, already has hired Norman Foster, the British architect best known for the Millennium Bridge in London and the renovated Reichstag in Berlin, who described the library work to The New York Times as “the greatest project ever.” At a library awards ceremony for cultural luminaries in November, Marx put it this way: “The library is forever. We are not shrinking. ... No matter the stresses of the day, what we all want is to keep civilization going.”

“The exciting thing about Tony Marx is that he is sending signals that he is interested in services and activities outside the library. There are so many opportunities,” says Karin Trainer, the head of Princeton’s libraries. (One stain on Marx’s brief tenure, however, was a DWI arrest in early November. Marx pled guilty; in December his license was suspended for six months and he was fined $500.)

Hand in hand with raising money, though, is a need to raise New Yorkers’ awareness of the library’s central role in the life of the city. “I think we all tend to take libraries for granted,” Marx says. “They’re sort of part of the furniture. But without them, we would not have the kind of society that is informed in the way that we all depend upon.” In lean times, the library budget may seem like an easy one to cut, but doing so would be shortsighted and self-defeating, he believes. The need for a quiet place to read, to work, and to dream is as important as it ever was.

“One thing you notice is that every seat in the Rose Reading Room is taken,” Marx continues. “In the branches, every seat is taken most days. Every computer that we offer, every laptop that we lend — there’s a line of people waiting for those. What does that tell you? It tells you that even if people don’t need to physically come in for books, they want to come in for the quiet space, for the computers, for the inspiration, for the company, for seeing other people who are doing thinking work. The fact is, we’re not cavemen. Even if we could work in a hole with our computers, we don’t want to do that.”

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.