NY Public Library turns 100, not just with books

By Karen Matthews

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

This Friday, May 20, 2011 photo shows a LEGO sculpture, a half-size tribute to the marble lions at the New York Public Library in New York. The library's landmark Fifth Avenue building is celebrating its 100th birthday with a party and an exhibit featuring highlights of its collection and special events and displays, including sculptor Nathan Sawaya's LEGO versions of "Patience" and "Fortitude," the iconic lions that grace the front of the library.

Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

NEW YORK — At 100, the New York Public Library's landmark Fifth Avenue building has nurtured generations of scholars and boasts treasures like a Gutenberg Bible and an early copy of the Declaration of Independence.

But while its stacks house millions of physical books, the library's push to embrace 21st century technology includes a new digital publication available as an iPad app.

"Books are important to us," library President Paul LeClerc said in an interview. "And online is important to us. And we're not abandoning either one."

The New York Public Library was founded at the close of the 19th century by merging libraries built by wealthy New Yorkers James Lenox and John Jacob Astor. The current library system comprises some 90 research libraries and branch libraries. Its collections total more than 50 million items, including more than 20 million books.

The flagship is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, which opened on May 23, 1911. Guarded by lions Patience and Fortitude, it is one of the city's most recognizable structures. A $50 million restoration undertaken to prepare for the centennial removed decades of grime from the gleaming marble faÇade.

The library operates with both public and private funds, and cutbacks in city funding may force neighborhood branch libraries to reduce their hours. The main library has benefited from many private donations, and facilities such as the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room bear the donors' names.

Birthday festivities over the weekend included tours of the normally off-limits stacks and the unveiling of Lego replicas of Patience and Fortitude. An overnight scavenger hunt Friday was partially inspired by "A Night at the Museum." Five hundred people spent the night at the library using a smartphone app to search for artifacts such as the cane found after Virginia Woolf drowned herself and the taxidermied paw of Charles Dickens' cat.

For the centennial gala Monday, LeClerc said lighting designers will make the library "more beautiful than any building in Paris at night."

A centennial exhibit runs through Dec. 31 and offers highlights of the collection like a copy of the Declaration of Independence handwritten by Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X's journal. (Both men had excellent penmanship.)

Upstairs in the Rose Main Reading Room, about the size of a football field, the silence is broken by the buzz of laptops booting up. Visitors without a laptop can borrow one with a library card and use it in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room, watched over by portraits of notables including George Washington and John Milton.

Juxtapositions of old and new can be jarring. Though it welcomes computers, the reading room's walls are lined with pre-Internet reference works like the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. LeClerc said the library will keep the Readers' Guide, though all the information is available online.

The birthday bash is part of LeClerc's farewell tour; he is stepping down at the end of June after heading the library for 17½ years.

"The challenges of being at the library at this point were really fascinating," he said. "We rode the wave of the digital revolution like surfers."

The library created a website in 1995 and converted its printed catalog — 800 folio-sized volumes — into web-accessible formats. "The A's along take up 53 stout, big volumes," LeClerc said.

Since 2005, the NYPL Digital Gallery has made half a million images of objects in the library's holdings available for downloading. LeClerc noted that Yale University only put its library of digital images online this month.

And the NYPL was one of five original partners of Google Books, which puts snippets of books online or the entire book if the work is in the public domain.

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