How 125 Miles of Shelves Fit into the New York Public Library [A Byte Out of the Big Apple]

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One byte out of the big apple

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New York City attracts captains of industry, innovators and creatives. It’s home to iconic skyscrapers and intricate subway tunnels, the neon lights of Times Square and the delicate flora of Central Park, physical stores and dotcoms – and they’re all brought to life by manufacturing.

Join Stephanie Nikolopoulos, Editor-in-Chief of Thomas Insights, as she takes a ‘byte’ of the history and future of the Big Apple in this monthly column.

What sold me on the first apartment I rented in New York City was its proximity to one of the New York Public Library branches. I spent hours there losing myself among the batteries. Each book was like an oyster: opening the well-worn cover revealed a magnificent and mysterious gem.

Some days I would walk up the stairs to the second floor of my neighborhood library and sit down at one of the sturdy wooden tables. For a while I had read, randomly opening one of my favorite novels on any page, just to soak up the language, the flow of words on the page, the long, rambling sentences that stirred my imagination. And then I took out my notebook and pen from my tote bag and started to write …

The library’s anniversary is approaching this month

Despite being one of the most famous libraries in the world – so iconic that it has been featured in countless Hollywood movies, TV shows, and books – when it was founded on May 27, 1895, the New York Public Library (NYPL) was by no means the first library open to the public in New York. This distinction goes to the New York Society Library, which began operating in a room in Old Town Hall in 1754 (it has since moved to the Upper East Side).

Perhaps the administrators took the idea of ​​”deep learning” a little too literally because the area chosen for the library was the location of the Lower Town Reservoir, part of the Croton Distribution Reservoir. which served the city with water. Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park after William Cullen Bryant, abolitionist and editor of the New York Evening Post in 1884, but the reservoir on the east side of the park was not removed until the summer of 1899 – after plans for the library were already underway.

It took 500 workers to remove the tank. If you know where to look – in the lower South Court stairwell – you can still see the remains of the tank walls hidden in the library. The real reason the site was chosen, however, was because of its proximity to the Astor Library and the Lenox Library.

The competition brings out the best in design, so the architects, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, were selected on November 11, 1897. For years, as the building was constructed, people have speculated on the wonders they would admire once the library opened. . President Taft dedicated the building – the tallest marble building in all of the United States at the time – on May 23, 1911.

From the impressive ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room to the majestic lions in the library out front, there is much to be said for the splendor of the New York Public Library. But the part of the library that seemed to arouse fascination even before it opened – and which to this day remains mind-boggling – are the piles of books.

“The largest library in the world”

While the New York Public Library was still under construction, Sunday New York Times The magazine published an article on October 1, 1905, calling it “without exception the largest library in the world.” The article, titled “The Great New York Public Library Nears Completion; A huge library to hold 4,500,000 volumes — will open in three years — will cost $ 3,000,000 — why it was delayed, ”paid special attention to the engineering and design of the batteries. the library.

“This wonderful network of steel bars and studs has just been completed, and illustrates the very latest methods and devices for shelving books. There is nothing like it in the big Old World libraries, ”the article read. to say: “A bookcase containing three and a half million volumes means a series of shelves which, if laid together, end to end, would measure more than eighty kilometers.”

The library measures 390 feet by 270 feet. Each floor has been made to its own height to accommodate the piles of books.

To design and build the stacks of books, the bones of the institution, the library turned to Snead & Company Iron Works. Earlier known for its window frames, the metalworking company became an expert in metal shelving from 1890. With their “z” notch that allowed for custom shelf height, Snead book stacks were narrow, sturdy and beautifully designed.

Thanks to the meticulous maintenance of the Snead & Company Iron Works archives, we have detailed information on the construction of the New York Public Library piles via their book Library planning, bookcases and shelves.

The rear of the building houses the main stack of books. Running from the basement to the second floor, it measures 297 feet long by 79 feet wide. It has seven levels of 7 feet 6 inches, which are then divided and subdivided: “Throughout the main stack contains 95,000 adjustable and 6,000 fixed shelves, which, placed end to end, would extend a distance of 63.3. miles.

The main stack alone could hold 3,000,000 pounds. However, keep in mind that this is the main stack, not the main stack. only stack. The other stacks can hold an additional 500,000 volumes.

Like an ant tunnel under the library

Today, the library holds around 4 million books in its underground piles. There are 88 miles of shelves in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library and 37 miles in the Milstein Research Stacks.

Milstein’s Upper Part opened in 1991 – and by “upper part” we of course mean 17 feet below Bryant Park. For years, this was the only accessible part. When funding was tight, the library considered storing its overflow of books in New Jersey, but New Yorkers being New Yorkers fought back.

Thanks to a donation from the Milsteins, the lower level, 27 feet below the park, was finally completed and became accessible in 2016. The air-conditioned space opened with 55,600 square feet of storage and can hold 2,500,000 books. Yet there is such an abundance of books that librarians have had to throw away the Dewey decimal system – gasp! – and simply store them by size. (Get a look at what the stacks look like under Bryant Park here.)

The Milstein Research Stacks rely on 24 electric cars to transport the books to the circulation counters in the main building. As part of the $ 2.6 million project, design company Gensler created the train system and Teledynamic built it. There is a whopping 950 feet of track for this little pound train, and, operating at speeds of up to 75 feet per minute and able to turn 90 degrees to climb the wall, the car can go from Milstein to the Rose Reading Room. in just 5 minutes! (Watch them in action here.)

Battery facts

On the day the library opened, the very first book requested from the main stack turned out to be a publicity stunt! The visitor to the library had asked Shakespeare’s play philosophy unveiled by Delia Bacon – and the library staff had to admit they didn’t have a copy. Half a century later, it was all revealed that all of this had been a boost in bringing attention to the book.

This led to Nikolai I. Grot’s Nravstvennye ideally nashego vremeni (Moral Ideas of Our Time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy) becoming the first book extracted from the main piles.

Today, more than 16 million people use the New York Public Library each year.

The busiest day on record was December 30, 1929, when 8,939 titles were requested in the main reading room.

So, of all these books, which one is the most sought after? Last year it was revealed that Ezra Jack Keats’ Snow day has been checked out from the New York Public Library 485,583 times, which is more than any other title. The Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book was published in 1962. The best book for adults was the novel by George Orwell. 1984, which, at the time, had been borrowed 441,770 times. Dale Carnegie is highly touted How to win friends and influence people was the most verified non-fiction (284,524 times).

Virtual library

We are now living in an age where a book does not necessarily mean a physical object.

The New York Public Library now offers 300,000 ebooks and audiobooks. However, just like hard copies, readers must use their library card to view them from the library’s free and open source app, SimplyE, and there may even be a waiting list.

Wonderful and weird artifacts beyond the books

Today, the library contains over 56 million items – and not all of them are books. Some are adjacent books, magazines for example, while others could be categorized as scary:

Take another byte from the big apple

  • In addition to book trains, the New York Public Library uses pneumatic tubes
  • Did you know that the lions in the New York Public Library are made from the same pink Tennessee marble as the floors in Grand Central?
  • The reservoir which was where the library is now moved to the top and is still used to distribute water today

Image Credit: Everview /

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