Behind the stone lions on Fifth Avenue, the New York Public Library’s imposing Fifth Avenue branch has added a new visitor center and an expanded gift shop and cafe.
The palatial Beaux-Arts library on Fifth Avenue guarded by a pair of stone lions was not where Farrah Denson wanted to be when she was a teenager growing up on the Upper West Side.
It was too formal and too intimidating, she recalled. She felt like she had to be on her best behavior and not touch anything. And she dreaded climbing all the steps to the main entrance.
“I felt like I was going to a courthouse,” said Ms. Denson, now 34, who lives in Jersey City. “It wasn’t a place you’d want to hang out in.”
Today, the New York Public Library’s celebrated research library — officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman building — is still as imposing as ever, set in its elegant lot in the middle of the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, but it has become a far more welcoming place.
An ongoing $200 million renovation of the 1911 landmark has sought to open its doors and world-famous collections to more people — and not just the scholars and authors that have long traipsed through its marble halls — as the demand for public space in a crowded city has soared since the pandemic.
Last month, a new entrance opened along 40th Street, allowing visitors to bypass the Fifth Avenue front steps and come around the side through a tranquil, shaded outdoor plaza with benches. That was what finally brought Ms. Denson back to the library this week.
“I knew there was something different,” Ms. Denson said after spotting the plaza from the street. “It’s like a retreat. This might be my little spot.”
The library has also upgraded public restrooms, significantly expanded the gift shop and transformed what was a simple food cart run by Amy’s Bread into a full cafe.
Just off the lobby, a room that was used to store maps has been transformed into a visitor’s center with a detailed model of the building as well as interactive screens to provide an overview of the library’s history and collections.
Replicas of artifacts have been set out on tables in the visitors center to be seen and touched. There is a model of Augusta Savage’s sculpture, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and a poster by Keith Haring about the AIDS crisis.
“We want everyone to feel like that they own the collections and everything the library has to offer and feel welcome,” said Anthony W. Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, which is the nation’s largest library system with 88 branches and four research centers.
Mr. Marx recalled that he did not feel welcome himself at the library as a teenager in the 1970s. “I remember walking by the main building and just thinking, That looks super fancy, and I was intimidated,” he said. “I didn’t walk in. I thought, That’s not for folks like me, that’s for just fancy folks.”
It was not until Mr. Marx was in his 30s that he actually stepped inside. Now he has an office in the building and has led the efforts to make it more inviting. The current renovation was paid for almost entirely with private money.
But even as library officials have sought to reach more people, they have once again faced the threat of crippling budget cuts to their programs. In January, Mayor Eric Adams proposed $36 million in potential reductions to the city’s three public library systems, only to later relent under intense pressure from the library’s supporters.
“Every year when this happens, the public says no, the libraries are different,” Mr. Marx said. “They are an essential part of the public fabric of this city that reaches the rich and the poor.”
The latest renovation of the research library, which began in 2020 and is expected to be completed in 2024, is part of a plan by library officials to create a Midtown library campus anchored by the research library and the lending library across the street, said Iris Weinshall, the library’s chief operating officer. The aim was to encourage people to go back and forth between them. The lending library, formerly known as the Mid-Manhattan Library, opened as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in 2021 after a separate $200 million renovation.
Inside the research library, a permanent installation of highlights from its collections was added in 2021 to show people what they were missing. The Polonsky Exhibition of the New York Public Library’s Treasures has displayed on a rotating basis more than 1,000 items that had been squirreled away in vaults and back rooms — including Charles Dickens’s writing desk, a 1783 pastel portrait of Benjamin Franklin and six first editions of Shakespeare’s collected works.
As of this week, the free exhibit has drawn nearly one million visitors.
Luca Prudencio, 27, a tourist from Bolivia, recently stopped by the visitor center and exhibit, but said he did not get to see everything. So the next time he comes to New York, the library will be at the top of his list.
“I find it really engaging,” he said. “It’s definitely not a boring library.”