The Manhattan Project: Stacks Fifth Avenue

SaradraSarada Anne, MBA Class of 2017

On a cold December morning, I joined the Government and Business Association and the Arts & Culture Club for a behind-the-scenes tour of the New York Public Library’s iconic main branch, now named after Blackstone CEO, Stephen A. Schwarzman.

As I ran alongside Bryant Park, hoping to be near-punctual for the beginning of the tour, I tried to remember everything I’d read about the history and architecture of this imposing structure. I could remember nothing apart from the fact that the lions flanking the entrance have names. They were first called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders of the library, and later, Lady Astor and Lord Lenox, despite the fact that both founders were men and both statues were of…lions. During the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wanted the lions to represent the resilience of the people of his city and named them Patience and Fortitude, names that have stuck to this day.

We passed Patience and Fortitude and began the day with Tony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library. He spoke to the group at length, with a generous amount of wit thrown in, about the evolving role of Library, which—through classes, outreach programs, and community events—now serves a purpose far broader than the book repository we instinctively assume it to be. Iris Weinshall, the COO/CFO of the Library and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, spoke to us about the unique challenges of running the organization’s operations, especially given the massive renovation plans currently underway.

Stern @ NYPL (1)We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the capacious Beaux-Arts building, which was inaugurated by President Taft on May 23rd, 1911. When the Library opened its doors to the public the next day, the extremely sobersounding Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (“Ethical Ideas of Our Time”) was the first book to be checked out. More than a century later, the New York Public Library now consists of four major research libraries and 88 branch libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and has over 45 million research items, 10 million of which are books. The main branch houses, on an average, 4.5 million items and over a third of them will soon be housed in the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE), which we also had the opportunity to visit. Currently under development, the BPSE lies 27 feet below Bryant Park and has over 84 miles of underground shelving capability. This might seem like a lot of storage space, but the Library is changing its classification system to fit all the books in. The standard Dewey Decimal System is being abandoned for a more practical approach to shelving: classifying and grouping books by their size.

This was followed by a fascinating tour of the Library’s many gorgeous and borderline-eccentric reading rooms. The DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, for example, is meant for precisely what the name suggests and is named after the founder of Reader’s Digest, early issues of which were compiled by Wallace based on his research in this very room. The gorgeous Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division is one of the world’s most extensive map collections and houses, among others, 20,000 New York maps of varying antiquity. The Berg Collection of English and American Literature houses many first editions, rare books, letters and manuscripts. It is also home to Charles Dickens’ writing desk and chair, which Mayor LaGuardia managed to sit in and break during the formal dedication of the Berg Collection and its reading room in 1940.

As the tour wound up, I wondered how institutions such as this would maintain relevance as we move to an age where information dissemination (or the lack of it) is almost Black Mirror-esque. I still had my doubts, but the following quote, engraved on the marble walls of Astor Hall, the building’s stately entrance, summed up the answer for me:

On the diffusion of education among the people rest the preservation and perpetuation of our free institutions

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