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New York Public Library reopens main reading room

Reading Room
The massive reading room features a fully restored ceiling

CNN's Garrick Utley reports
Windows Media 28K 56K

November 24, 1998
Web posted at: 11:05 p.m. EST (0405 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- After 18 months and $15 million worth of restoration, the main reading room at the New York Public Library is back to its former glory -- and a little closer to the future, too.

The room is nearly the size of a football field, yet still feels intimate, a public space for private communing.

The library and the room have been open to scholars, students and the casual reader since 1911. Celebrated writers have sought inspiration there, and the inventors of the Xerox machine and the Polaroid camera chose it for their research.

A man named Norbert Pearlroth did research there, too. He came to the room almost every day for more than 50 years to look up odd and bizarre facts.

Those facts were then turned into a Sunday newspaper cartoon -- "Ripley's: Believe it or not!"

A touch of modern times

The room may have been restored to its old look, but it's also been upgraded with new technology. Patrons are now just as likely to browse the Web as to browse the stacks.

"You can sit here and you can visit the national library of Australia, of Great Britain, of France, of Germany," said library President Paul LeClerc. "And that's the nature of reading today."

Why then, with computer chips that can hold vastly more information than any library, is there still a need for books? Why keep eight floors of stacks and 88 miles of shelves beneath the reading room?

The answer goes beyond books.

"It's the way a democracy should work," said patron Jerry Kaufman. "It's a civic space, it's a public space, it's for all the citizens."

Indeed, libraries are democratic, built on trust, with anyone welcome -- no questions asked.

"I kept asking the information people, 'Where do I register?'" said Canadian professor Andre Drainville.

He said he was looking for the metal detectors and "the things that prove that I am a worthwhile citizen."

In the end, the elaborate room, with its old-world look and its new-age technology, may be as much about people as about books.

Reporter Garrick Utley contributed to this report.

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