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Fifth Avenue treasure trove: The New York Public Library’s reading room (photo: David Iliff)

Recently, the New York Public Library (NYPL), one of the world’s great repositories of human knowledge, suffered a near-death experience. How this happened, and the struggle to rescue the century-old institution from its own trustees, is the subject of Scott Sherman’s sprightly Patience and Fortitude (“Patience” and “Fortitude” are the stone lions guarding the NYPL’s building on Fifth Avenue). At stake was nothing less than the future not only of this Manhattan landmark but of its vast collection of books, rare manuscripts, artifacts, and ephemera.

A journalist, Sherman writes battlefield reportage, not history calmly studied from afar, and in this slim, quick-paced volume he paints a fascinating, but often unlovely, picture of politics, people, power, and protest in today’s New York City.

The man most responsible for the NYPL, as Sherman recounts, was its first director, John Shaw Billings, who was hired in 1895 to oversee the massive structure planned for Fifth Avenue. The polymath Billings had served as a battlefield surgeon during the American Civil War but his interests and skills, honed as director of what is now called the National Library of Medicine in Washington, DC, were in what today we would call information technology. 

Billings put these skills to good use as he planned the new library needed to house and order the tsunami of books and journals flowing from new high-speed printing presses. He devised a brilliant masterplan, the heart of which was a monumental, light-filled, frescoed, book-lined neo-renaissance reading room, now known as the Rose Main Reading Room.

Underlying and supporting this enormous hall was a marvel of early 20th-century engineering: seven storeys of ingeniously designed and fabricated iron and steel book stacks.

The architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings won the contract for the new library mainly because Billings and his trustees knew they could best turn his ideas into iron and stone. They were not to be disappointed. When it was completed in 1911, their Beaux Arts wonder housed more than a million books in a building that still works well a century later. Unfortunately, Carrère never lived to see his most famous building in use; he was killed in a car accident a few months before the official opening.

From the start the NYPL, funded by a combination of city and private money, frequently faced financial difficulties. Occasionally its board of trustees sold objects from its extensive collection, but in 2005 it raised eyebrows by auctioning off a much-loved painting, Asher Durand’s 1849 Kindred Spirits, bought by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for $35 million. The trustees claimed that the proceeds went to its endowment. Many New Yorkers protested that they were selling off the city’s patrimony.

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