New York Public Library – The living room of the city

New York Public Library – The living room of the city

In July 2017 I visited the main branch of the New York Public Library, an iconic building named the Stephen A Schwarzman Building. Not only has it appeared many times on the silver screen (including Philadelphia, Sex and the City: The Movie, and The Day After Tomorrow), more importantly the building is home to a library of significant reputation as both a public research facility and a major tourist destination. Named after the philanthropist and CEO of the Blackstone Group Stephen A Schwarzman, the building is known affectionately as the “living room of the city”.

The main entrance into the building is via the majestic steps located on Fifth Avenue, Midtown Manhattan. It was interesting to see that some of the  people visiting the library suffered from the same confusion as I’ve observed others visiting similar buildings elsewhere; a set of entry doors confirming that they are not exits (the continuing confusion of signage!)

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A vast main atrium, with clear wayfinding, moves you towards its angular walkways and sweeping staircases.

The first major exhibition for people to visit is the history of the building. Positioned along the walls of the first floor corridor, the exhibition was easy to read, incredibly interesting and created a bright and spacious entry into the heart of the library.

As I continued through the building, I noticed that a large staff workspace was located in a modern extension. It would have been great to look at the space more closely, but unfortunately it was a Saturday, so maybe this is a good reason to return to New York in the future to find out more!

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My site visits are done with the aim of learning from other buildings, understanding what is working well and what could be even better. Approaching the Rose Main Reading Room, the detail and decoration was jaw dropping. The feeling of the library being a tourist attraction quickly diminished and its role as a working research library was clear to see.

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At the entrance to the reading room, a large sign declares that you are ‘standing at the threshold of two of the city’s most cherished public spaces and the gateway to the Library’s world-class research collections of more than 43 million items’. This threshold was tangible. Silence descended over you with small, quiet conversations taking place at the customer help desk only.

At the top of the room, a small exhibition showcased a selection of books recently published using the Library’s vast collection. This was an amazingly simple yet effective way for a research library to demonstrate its impact.

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The Rose Main Reading Room had undergone a major renovation in autumn 2016. After speaking to members of the library team and explaining my role at the University of Manchester Library, I was allowed an in-depth look at the entire area (in normal circumstances visitors are politely asked to remain at the top of the room). The room was phenomenal.  The size of the Rose Reading Room almost equals an American football field. It is one of the largest rooms in the United States without a dome, interior columns, or steel-reinforced walls to support the ceiling. Not a single bulb was faulty in any of its desktop lamps or mighty chandeliers. The room seats over 600 people and additional power sockets had been retrospectively fitted to the original furniture, housed in brass plates.

The Bill Blass Public Catalogue Room provided a much more intimate study space and offered interesting, semi-secure reading spaces for individuals and pairs. Each room was monitored by a member of staff.

One of the aspects of the building that impressed me most was the simplicity and effectiveness of the conversion of spaces to host exhibits. The library had temporarily converted a corridor to host the Viewpoints: Latin America in Photographs exhibition. Fake walls were constructed in front of the historic surfaces to hang pictures without causing unwanted damage. The vivid streak of orange used to paint these walls brought a breath of fresh air into the space – a skillful blend of modern pallets within a traditional setting. The Love in Venice exhibition, although small in terms of the area it accommodated, was vast in terms of the richness of the overall display. A large, fabric drop adorned the entrance to the room, creating a sense of wonder and grandeur. Normal exhibition cases were encased by decorative plywood featuring Venetian curves and angles. Tainted mirrored surfaces and intricate transfers transformed the walls of the exhibition space, bringing different perspectives and textures to the room.

To a trained facility management eye, the building still suffered from issues we often experience in our own library spaces. Storage for operational equipment was obviously at a premium (items being on show) and water ingress had certainly affected a number of surfaces. There was historic evidence of various items being fixed directly into the marble surfaces (drill holes unfortunately pot marked the walls).

However there were also a number of ingenious developments and very effective facility solutions. The team had converted former shelving used for collections into study spaces with PCs. The facilities team used movable screens with images of the building printed on them to hide equipment and items not in use. The team also used fencing to secure areas from public access but ensured the fencing matched the colours used in the surrounding area (in this case gold).

My visit to the Stephen A Schwarzman building was incredible and inspiring, a real eye opener. The team have struck a healthy balance of running a building that undertakes the dual roles of a working library and also a hugely significant visitor attraction. At the end of my visit I had the opportunity to see one of the original manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence, hand written by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. The document was only on view for four days and it was privilege to have been able to spend time observing it.

Mike Kelly, Library Space Development Manager

@MikeLiamKelly

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