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The staff of the New York Public Library made some noise today in celebration of a major birthday. The library's main building in Manhattan opened to the public 100 years ago today. Ever since, the iconic, neoclassical building has welcomed readers from all over the world.
NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.
JOEL ROSE: Today marks 100 years of Patience and Fortitude. Those, of course, are the names of the lion statues that stand guard here on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The marble lions and the library they represent have been photographed millions of times by an adoring public, and they've appeared in dozens of films and TV shows.
(Soundbite of movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's")
Ms. AUDREY HEPBURN (Actor): (as Holly Golightly) What is this place, anyway?
Mr. GEORGE PEPPARD (Actor): (as Paul Varjak) You said you wanted to sit down. It's the public library. You've never been here?
Ms. HEPBURN: (as Holly Golightly) No. That makes two for me. I don't see any books.
Mr. PEPPARD: (as Paul Varjak) They're in there.
ROSE: Audrey Hepburn was right in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." There are no books in the atrium of the New York Public Library, just a lot of stairs and marble.
Mr. PAUL LeCLERC (President and CEO, New York Public Library): New York has always been a ferociously ambitious city, even when there wasn't very much to show off.
ROSE: Library President Paul LeClerc explains that the founders of the library were trying to send a message.
Mr. LeCLERC: Those involved in creating this library wanted to create something that was on a par with the great libraries of the European capitals, especially London, Paris and Berlin.
ROSE: Plus, they needed to build something bigger and flashier than Boston's library. Hence, the majestic main reading room at the New York Public Library, which stretches for two city blocks. Beneath it lie the stacks where the library keeps many of its 50 million items. They've appeared on screen too.
(Soundbite of movie, "Ghost Busters")
Mr. HAROLD RAMIS (Actor): (as Dr. Egon Spengler) Raymond, look at this.
Mr. DAN AYKROYD (Actor): (as Dr. Raymond Stantz) Ectoplasmic residue.
Mr. RAMIS: (As Dr. Egon Spengler) Venkman, get a sample of this.
Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (as Dr. Peter Venkman) Somebody blows their nose and you wanna keep it?
Mr. RAMIS: (as Dr. Egon Spengler) I'd like to analyze it.
ROSE: Unless you're a librarian or a professional Ghost Buster, you're not allowed to wander in the stacks, but you can ask to read virtually anything you want, no questions asked.
Mr. ADAM GOPNIK (Staff Writer, The New Yorker Magazine): I was stunned the first day I ever walked in here, because you just walk in here.
ROSE: Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, he says that's a stark contrast to the great European libraries like the National Library of France, where you need credentials and recommendations just to get in the door.
Mr. GOPNIK: I don't think we brood sufficiently on what a miraculous institution this is. It's not democratic in spirit: It's democratic. The credential you present is your existence, and the resume you show is your curiosity.
ROSE: Maybe that open-door policy helps explain why the library is often a refuge for survivors in post-apocalyptic movies like "The Day After Tomorrow."
(Soundbite of movie, "The Day After Tomorrow")
Ms. SHEILA McCARTHY (Actress): (as Judith) ...fireplace probably hasn't been used in about a hundred years. What are you doing?
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (as Sam Hall) What did you think we were going to burn?
Ms. MCCARTHY: (as Judith) You can't burn books.
Mr. TOM ROONEY (Actor): (as Jeremy) No. Absolutely not.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (as Sam Hall) You wanna freeze to death?
ROSE: The library itself may be facing an existential threat as more and more information is stored digitally. But even if the New York Public Library diminishes in importance as a repository of books, Adam Gopnik thinks it will still be an important center for learning.
Mr. GOPNIK: A lot of what goes on in this library - as in the artists and writers and fellows, the conversations, the lectures, the - all the other things that go on - reflect that larger role of the library. It's not just a place where you can access a book. It's a place where you can meet other readers, even if you have to whisper as you do.
ROSE: And, of course, there's only one place to get your picture taken with Patience and Fortitude.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
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