What Will Become of the Library?

Michael Agresta:

Around the turn of the 20th century—a golden age for libraries in America—the Snead Bookshelf Company of Louisville, Ky., developed a new system for large-stack library shelving. Snead’s multifloor stack systems can still be seen in many important libraries built in that era, for instance at Harvard, Columbia, the Vatican, and at Bryant Park in New York City. Besides storing old bundles of bound paper, Snead’s stacks provided load-bearing structural support to these venerable buildings. To remove the books would literally invite collapse.

A recent attempt by the New York Public Library to do away with the stacks at its main branch and move its research collection to New Jersey invited just this concern. Engineers described the idea of removing the shelves that support the Rose Reading Room as “cutting the legs off the table while dinner is being served.” The plan was to transform the interior of the iconic 42nd Street building from its original purpose—a massive storage space for books with a few reading rooms attached—to a more open, services-oriented space with many fewer books on-site. An outcry from scholars and preservationists may yet halt the NYPL’s renovation, with a final verdict on the way this year.