More than a decade ago, The New York Public Library looked at the changing needs of our patrons and realized bold action would be required. Particularly, we recognized that we needed to improve the programs we offer in midtown. Here, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, New Yorkers from all boroughs come to use our largest circulating collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library; across the street, researchers from all over the world use the amazing collections in the iconic building behind the lions—the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building—while local, national, and international visitors browse our many exhibits.
The Mid-Manhattan Library, which as our busiest branch sees 1.4 million visitors each year, had fallen into disrepair from such heavy use, and offered too little space for the growing demand for classes and programming. Meanwhile, less than 25 percent of the Schwarzman Building, the jewel of our system, was open to the public. And we needed to find a durable solution for storage and preservation of our research collection, currently vulnerable to decay from inadequate humidity and temperature controls.
In 2007, the library devised a plan to solve these problems: move the books from outdated stacks in the heart of the Schwarzman Building and clear out that space to make room inside for a new Mid-Manhattan library, designed by visionary architect Norman Foster. The plan also called for much more, including the creation of an exciting Education Corridor for young readers and teens, and doubling the work space for scholars and innovators—a vast expansion of the amount of space in the main library accessible to our patrons.
We spent years developing and exploring this plan, trying to see how it could work, and opening a public discussion to inform our efforts.
Along the way, the world changed. With the financial collapse of 2008, the economy shifted and the library system faced years of decreasing city funding. The revolution in information technology has radically altered how ideas are accessed and how we can provide educational programs. And the plan to replace the stacks with new public space, after much study, has proven more difficult, less flexible for the future, and more expensive than we had hoped for.
The Library’s trustees patiently explored all of these issues, listened to concerns and critics, studied all options and, based on the new facts on the ground, decided to alter the plan. This is as it should be: when the facts change, the only right thing to do as a public serving institution is to take a look with fresh eyes and react to the facts as they present themselves.
But we also know that our goals of a renovated Mid-Manhattan Library, better protection for our research collection, and more access to the Schwarzman Building were the right ones. That’s why we have announced changes to the plan that deliver on those goals at less cost, and with greater flexibility and less risk. Instead of removing the Schwarzman stacks and placing the Mid-Manhattan Library in that space, we’ll renovate the Mid-Manhattan Library at its current site. This renovation will add much-needed computer labs and an adult education space, and an inspiring, comfortable space for browsing our largest circulating collection.
At the Schwarzman Building, in keeping with the original plan, we’ll undertake the most comprehensive renovation in the building’s history, reopening long-closed rooms to the public while leaving the stacks intact. This beautiful, rededicated library will feature more than double the exhibition space, including a Treasures Gallery to showcase our most incredible items, from Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to Columbus’s 1492 letter to King Ferdinand. The new Education Corridor will create space for students and teachers to engage with our research collections, and researchers will enjoy more space and staff support. And because we will expand and modernize our storage space under Bryant Park, we will have the capacity to ensure that the research collection housed at Schwarzman will be at once better protected and quickly accessible.
For more on this topic, see “NYPL Ditches Controversial Renovation Plans in Midtown Manhattan”
As we build this vibrantly integrated campus of library services in the center of New York, we’ll also be making key improvements at our branch locations across the city. With the city’s support, we’ll provide much expanded educational programs, from new after school and pre-K help, to massively expanded English language and citizenship classes for immigrants, computer skills and coding instruction, digital access to broadband and books at home, and much more. We’re excited to begin working toward this great outcome in partnership with the city and with our remarkably generous private donors.
The library has never been more heavily used or more deeply needed. Making the right decisions about how to renovate and integrate our midtown campus is just a part of the larger endeavor of positioning the New York Public Library system for the future—but it’s a part we had to get right. Now, thanks to careful study and public engagement, we have.
Anthony Marx is president and CEO of the New York Public Library