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When the New York Public Library opened on Fifth Avenue in 1911, thousands of people lined up outside the palatial Beaux-Arts building to get their hands on books they could find nowhere else.
There were rare first editions of classics like “The Scarlet Letter,” political treatises and hand-scribbled family histories, all stored within easy reach in seven football-field-size floors of stacks just below the main reading room.
But over the next century, the stacks became outdated and could not adequately protect irreplaceable books from sunlight, heat and humidity, library officials said.
The books were taken away in 2013 as part of the library’s plan to replace the stacks with a new lending library, which drew howls from prominent authors, scholars and many patrons.
The plan was abandoned, but the stacks remained empty as library officials figured out what to do.
The answer, library officials say after a two-year study, is that the stacks at the heart of the building will have no books — at least not anytime soon.
The work to modernize them would be too expensive (costing as much as $200 million) and disruptive.
So the cavernous space will remain in limbo as officials move to expand storage space outside the library for one of the world’s leading research collections.
Still, library officials emphasized they would not tear out the stacks. In the meantime, there are plenty of books for patrons to peruse.
But the decision disappointed some library watchers who had long awaited news of the stacks.
Charles D. Warren, an architect and historian, pointed to other prominent research libraries, including the Library of Congress, that had renovated their stacks. “The purpose of a library is to have the books close at hand,” he said.
Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, said the stacks were designed to hold books, and “it doesn’t make sense for them not to be used for books and special collections.”
The stacks, fashioned out of steel from the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, were part of the original design of the building. From the beginning, they served a dual purpose: Stacked one on top of another, they held up the grand, chandelier-lit reading room.
The stacks themselves were off limits to library patrons. Instead, books were requested by filling out a slip of paper that was whisked down a pneumatic tube to workers in the stacks below. The books were sent up in mini-lifts resembling dumbwaiters.
Later, the stacks were modernized with fire sprinklers and air-conditioners that struggled to cool down the space. But library officials said little could be done about the towering windows that overlooked Bryant Park and allowed in sunlight and moisture, or the 26 entrances to the stacks that posed a security risk.
As the library’s research collection grew, officials built a windowless storage space with air-filtration and climate-control systems under Bryant Park. They also helped build a modern research center in New Jersey in 2000; it is shared with Princeton, Columbia and Harvard universities.
In 2012, library officials unveiled a $300 million plan they said was essential to the future as they grappled with financial pressures and an emerging digital landscape. It included moving up to half the 2.5 million books in the stacks to New Jersey to make room for a new circulating library.
Critics railed against the plan, saying it cost too much, would undermine the research library and could lead to delays in getting books. It was scrapped in 2014.
David Nasaw, a history professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center who opposed the plan, said ideally he would like to see books back in the stacks. “How could you not want them right there as they used to be?” he said.
But even more important, he added, was that the books remain safe and available to researchers — even if that required them to be kept somewhere else.
Today, the research collection consists of about 11 million books and more than 40 million documents, photos and research materials divided among four dedicated research libraries, of which the Fifth Avenue building is the largest.
The collection includes the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand and a letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand.
But it is also a record of everyday life. It is where every issue of Vogue can be found along with every phone book from around the country. There are collectible comic books, 18th-century newspapers and underground literature from the Soviet Union.
About 300,000 books — mainly the most valuable and fragile — remain inside the Fifth Avenue building in special collection rooms.
The books from the stacks have been divided between the two outside storage spaces. Popular and more recent books are under the park; more shelves were added in 2015. Less requested books have been sent to New Jersey and are trucked in within 24 hours after a request (some researchers complain it can take longer).
William Kelly, the director of the research libraries, said that even if the stacks were retrofitted for books, they would not provide as much protection as these modern, state-of-the-art storage systems, which the library plans to expand.
“The heart of the New York Public Library has always been its collections,” he said. “Our priority is being good stewards of those collections so researchers can access them now and in the future.” Some library users said that if the stacks could not be used for books, they should be repurposed for something else.
Meaghan Ritchey, 33, a marketing director, said she would like the see the space opened to the public for library exhibitions, readings and workshops.
“This is Midtown Manhattan,” she said. “It shouldn’t sit there empty.”
William Freedman, 55, a finance and technology writer, suggested filling the stacks with computers and data storage.
“It’s really using them for their intended purpose,” he said. “The information that was stored in books in the 20th century is stored digitally in the 21st century.”