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February 17, 2006

Room 117: The largest map collection of any public library in the world — 'the holy of holies' — is now open


Bonus: It's absolutely free.

So where's Room 117, already, joe?

Stop jerking our chain.


It's in the New York Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

It's the building with the big lions alongside the main steps.

Glenn Collins wrote about the reopening of the great room after a $5 million restoration (pictured near its conclusion, above) in a story that appeared in the December 12, 2005 New York Times.

Why am I just getting around to it now?

Because, as Stewart Brand once remarked, "History is news that stays news."

The article follows.

    Room 117, Awash in Color and Light; Restoring Vivid Palette of Library's Map Chamber

    For decades, it has been known simply as Room 117.

    Under a gilt ceiling that has been likened to an inside-out Fabergé egg, an avid circle of initiates has marveled at a glorious 1598 depiction of sea monsters in the waters of the Indies.

    They have cherished 17th-century visions of the world drawn by the Rembrandts of early cartography.

    And they have savored a renowned 1668 map that depicts modern-day California as an island, an image now sardonically viewed, by some, as a sign.

    The room's bronze-handled doors were shuttered nine months ago.

    But Thursday, after a $5 million restoration, the largest map collection in any public library in the world will reopen in its Beaux-Arts jewelry box at the New York Public Library, a room noted for its spectacular corner view of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

    The meticulous reconstruction was intended to return the soaring 7,000-square-foot space to the original 1911 intention of its architects, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings.

    But it is also marrying the collection's priceless maps -- including many classics from the age of exploration -- to new mapping resources of the digital age.

    Surely Room 117 was in need of a little work.

    ''If there ever was a sleeping beauty, it was the map room,'' said Dr. Paul LeClerc, the library's president.

    ''Or maybe the analogy is to the ugly duckling.''

    The once-dazzling ceiling had darkened with decades of automobile and heating-fuel particulates since windows were opened before ventilation systems were installed in the 1980's.

    Carved portals of blue-gray marble from Germany became sheathed in city grime.

    Exquisite carved walnut cartouches depicting griffins and cherubs had been hidden behind industrial shelving.

    Not only had original chandeliers become coated with dirt, but in the 1960's, a row of chandeliers disappeared, replaced by grayish fluorescents.

    Even the paint covering the elegant summits of the classic arched windows -- a World War II expedient to baffle enemy bombers -- has finally been removed.

    Newly restored is the 40-foot-by-35-foot main map-reference reading room, with its 20-foot-tall plaster Beaux-Arts ceiling densely encrusted with designs of fruits, vegetables, dragons and cherubs in its original vivid color palette of gilt, green and vermillion.

    The map room will henceforth be officially known as the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division after the principal sponsors of its reconstruction and endowment.

    The city of New York also provided $2.5 million, and the federal government $500,000 toward construction, planned by its lead architect, Davis Brody Bond.

    The library's map collection ''shows how human beings from one era to another across different cultures come to an understanding of themselves and the universe,'' Dr. LeClerc said.

    ''It reveals as much about these people as the world they are trying to represent.''

    The division's collection of almost 420,000 maps, atlases and cartographic books will have tables wired for laptop plug-ins.

    The map room -- actually two rooms and a mezzanine -- will have more than 360 storage shelves, some of them measuring 5 by 7 1/2 feet, 900 map drawers and 1,800 additional drawers in storage rooms under Bryant Park, where the temporary ice rink is situated.

    The reconstruction ''has been very labor intensive,'' said Scott Walker, the project superintendent for some 60 hard hats working for F. J. Sciame Construction Company, ''especially putting in the 4-inch-by-4-inch squares of gilt,'' he said of the reading-room ceiling.

    No public library has more maps, said Alice C. Hudson, chief of the map division, though private collections at Harvard University, the University of Illinois, the American Geographical Society and several other institutions are of comparable size, and the Library of Congress has some five million maps.

    The map division has some of the rarest maps in the world, yet all of them can be studied, and handled, by the public ''without giving us your first-born child to see them,'' Ms. Hudson said.

    ''We do not have a rare-book mentality in this map division.''

    Many of the maps are sheathed in plastic, and most are stored in cabinets.

    High-tech amenities will also include security improvements that the library declines to discuss.

    Such enhancements gained new urgency with the recent arrest of a prominent antique map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III, who was charged in Connecticut with three counts of larceny stemming from a June 8 visit to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

    According to an affidavit, surveillance cameras captured Mr. Smiley removing a map.

    Mr. Smiley pleaded not guilty on Aug. 9, and has declined to comment on the case, as has his lawyer, and Yale as well.

    The arrest rocked the close-knit universe of mapdom, and sent librarians from New York to London scurrying to their stacks to see if their own collections were intact.

    Ms. Hudson declined to comment about Mr. Smiley directly, and would not say whether her collection was missing any maps, because ''the F.B.I. is investigating,'' she said.

    But beyond security, the division is also well on the way to making the map room ''go virtual,'' said Matt Knutzen, a cartographer who is assistant chief of the division, ''bringing the historic collections into the digital age.

    We hope to bring antiquarian materials to a whole new audience across the world.''

    And so, eight new high-speed computers will enable patrons to download map data and retrieve new geographic information systems that will open the division's vast collection to digital enhancement, and facilitate copying on new large-format printers.

    The staff is working to create a geographical search engine -- a cartographic user interface, as it were -- that could relate maps to other collections of the library, such as the 500,000 images from its collections that have been digitized, including historic building photographs, posters, floor plans and subway construction blueprints.

    Eventually, Mr. Knutzen explained, a user would be able to designate a location such as a tenement in which an ancestor once lived, then retrieve vintage images of the property as well as published articles, Census records and diary entries.

    The restoration is part of a $100-million, decades-long project to transform the interiors and exteriors of the library in time for the 2011 centennial rededication of the building.

    Many of the division's maps are worth six figures, and one of the collection's venerable map sets created by the family of Willem Janszoon Blaeu -- the aforementioned cartographic Rembrandts -- has fetched more than $1 million at auction, ''but you cannot put a value on this collection,'' said Ms. Hudson, who has been chief for 24 years.

    About 80 percent of patrons, she said, use 20 percent of the collection -- mostly New York City maps, from its extensive archive.

    But the division acquires maps from around the world.

    The collection, from the 16th century to the present, spans classic engravings, vellum heirlooms, manuscript maps, cemetery maps, railroad maps, insurance maps, harbor charts, computer-produced cartography charts and CD-ROM's.

    The oldest map, from 1545, depicts North and South America; the newest is a 2005 map of the European Union.

    The division has its roots in the establishment of the Astor Library and the Lenox Library in the 19th century.

    In the 1920's, the photographer Walker Evans worked as a page in the map room.

    After Pearl Harbor, the Army arrived looking for maps of Japan; immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, engineers and architects began searching for maps to help untangle the blasted infrastructure at ground zero.

    Through the years, its users have included archaeologists, historians, site-study consultants, preservation specialists and genealogists as well as writers researching novels, plays and film scripts.

    One patron arrived with his great grandfather's journal; librarians enabled him to confirm its description of a Texas cattle drive in the 1860's by finding maps of old livestock routes.

    Then there are those who take the name of the room literally enough to step up to the reference desk ''and ask, 'Can I get the crosstown bus over to the U.N. here?' '' Ms. Hudson said.

    ''If the New York Public Library is the temple of New York, then the map room is the holy of holies,'' said Phillip Lopate, Adams Professor of English at Hofstra University.

    He used the collection extensively to research his 2004 book, ''Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan.''

    Dr. LeClerc said that new technology would not replace what he called the library's historic mission, ''its continuing commitment to the acquisition, care and presentation of physical objects,'' he said.

    ''Our collections will continue to grow, as will access to electronic information.''

    But will technology make the map room unnecessary?

    ''You need to be here,'' Dr. Hudson said on a recent afternoon in the reading room.

    ''We've had more people coming in because they've seen the maps on our website.

    There will always be people handling our maps.''

February 17, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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