Most of the renovated library will look the same as it does today. Its special collections and manuscripts will remain in place, and readers will be able to consult them in the same quiet setting of oak panels and baronial tables. The great entrance hall, grand staircases, and marble corridors will continue to convey the atmosphere of a Beaux-Arts palace of the people. But the new branch library on the lower floors overlooking Bryant Park will have a completely different feel. Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, who will coordinate the renovation, it will suit the needs of a variety of patrons, who will enter the building from a separate ground-level entrance and may remain only long enough to consult magazines or check out current books, videos, and works in other formats. But it will also be used by scholars and writers who want to take home selected books that formerly could only be read in the building.
Will the mixture of readers who take home books and researchers who work inside the library, of premodern and postmodern architecture, of old and new functions, desecrate a building that embodies the finest strain in New York’s civic spirit? Some of the library’s friends fear the worst. A letter of protest against the plan has been signed by several hundred distinguished academics and authors, including Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize”“winning novelist, and Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review. A petition of less-well-known but equally committed lovers of the library warns that the remodeling “will be ruining a functional element of its architecture””and its soul.” Blogs and Op-Ed pages have been sizzling with indignation.
The shrill tone of the rhetoric””“a glorified Starbucks,” “a vast Internet cafÃ©,” “cultural vandalism”””suggests an emotional response that goes beyond disagreement over policy.