Unpacking the Stacks

Courtesy Foster+Partners

When the New York Public Library first announced plans for an estimated $300 million overhaul of its flagship branch, the grand Beaux Arts-style building on Fifth Avenue, protests ensued from scholars, writers, and ordinary users who regard the institution as a sacred resource for research and learning. In December, Foster + Partners revealed the designs for this controversial renovation, which would re-locate millions of books and open up to the public a section of the library previously occupied by stacks. The plan calls for a merger of the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Innovative Science, Industry, and Business Library (on Madison at 34th Street) into the renovated flagship building on 42nd Street. As part of the process, NYPL will transfer approximately 3 million books to a humidity-controlled chamber beneath Bryant Park, then send the remaining 1.2 million books to an off-site location in New Jersey.


The New York Public Library sees the renovation as an effort to alleviate high operating costs, which a spokesperson says could loosen up “$15 million dollars more to spend annually.” But critics are skeptical. In a letter addressed to NYPL President Anthony W. Marx, a group of 750 signers voiced concern about the renovation—pointing out that budget cutbacks and staff layoffs in the last few years already have impaired the services of and access to research materials in libraries across New York City:

 “NYPL will lose its standing as a premier research institution (second only to the Library of Congress in the United States)—a destination for international as well as American scholars—and become a busy social center where focused research is no longer the primary goal,” the opponents warned. “Books will be harder to get when they’re needed either because of delays in locating them in the storage facility or because they have been checked out to borrowers.”

In spite of the objections, NYPL stands behind its plan to transform what the institution describes as the “underutilized” library Carrere and Hastings created into “The People’s Palace.”

The designs unveiled by Foster + Partners will remove seven floors of stacks under the grand Rose Main Reading Room to make way for a workspace with an expansive atrium, vaulted ceiling, balconies, bookshelves, and new areas devoted to classrooms and computer labs. Without the stacks, the floor-to-ceiling windows will let in light to the space and provide views of Bryant Park. As of now, interior finishes will include a combination of bronze, wood, and stone.


Even with strong opposition to the renovation, the New York Public Library is forging ahead with it plans and making progress. In January, The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the library’s application for changes to its Beaux-Arts exterior, mostly on the side facing Bryant Park, in a six-to-two vote.

New York Public Library and Foster + Partners are choosing their words carefully as they try to alleviate concerns about the changes and reassure critics that the renovation will honor and maintain the mission of the library and respect the historic structure of the flagship branch.

“Our design does not seek to alter the character of the building, which will remain unmistakably a library in its feel, in its details, materials, and lighting. It will remain a wonderful place to study,” principal Norman Foster said in a statement. “The parts that are currently inaccessible will be opened up, inviting the whole of the community—it is a strategy that reflects the principles of a free institution upon which the library was first founded.”

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