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Inside Stories / Six new floors rise within the main branch

Fashioned of glass, steel and honey-colored wood, with sleek minimalist

lines throughout, the first-ever above-ground addition to the New York Public

Library flagship opens on June 3, forging a high-tech, user-friendly alliance

between old and new.

It is the first such addition to the Beaux Arts landmark in 91 years.

Called South Court, it provides an array of hands-on research classes that

will benefit patrons as varied as essay-writing grade- schoolers and Pulitzer

Prize- winning historians. Built atop an interior parking lot, the six-story,

$29-million expansion is invisible from the street.

"This isn't your usual public library," said Rodney Phillips, director of

what formally is called the Humanities & Social Sciences Library, of which

South Court is a part.

At a recent press briefing, Phillips quoted novelist James Baldwin,

suggesting that what he wrote about the library in 1953 remains true today. In

"Go Tell It on the Mountain," a Baldwin character refers to "the great main

building of the public library, a building filled with books and unimaginably

vast and in which he never yet dared to enter...."

South Court, Phillips said, "is a building that's going to allow us to help

those people who haven't yet dared to enter."

Two 15-seat classrooms are to be used for the hourlong computer classes,

the first of which begin at 11:15 a.m. June 3. Seats are first-come,

first-served. Inaugural sessions are on "Getting Started With Your Research"

and "Using the Libraries' Online Catalogs." Schedules for other classes may be

accessed online at http:// nypl.org/research/ chss/southcourt/ schedule.htm. Or

go to www.nypl. org. Under the heading "Research Libraries," click on

"Humanities and Social Services Library." Then, under "Programs," click on

"Celeste Bartos Education Center" and go to "Schedule of Classes."

South Court extends 40 feet below street level and below original

foundations, some of which date to 1902.

A square within a square, it adds 40,000 square feet to the library's

existing 500,000 square feet. An open 4-foot alley allows closeup views of the

library's cleaned marble facade, including arches featuring carved amalgams of

chains, arrows, roosters and open books. The new-looking walls are lit by

skylights and a "Wall Washer" system that leaves them shadow-free.

The multiuse South Court also provides roomy office, lounge and work space

for library staff, with four of the six levels set aside for their use. In the

public areas, an electronic "media wall" features digitized fade-in, fade-out

photos from library collections, ranging from illuminated manuscripts to 18th

century maps to "Wonder Woman" comics.

A 24-seat visitors' theater screens a 12-minute orientation film that

imparts salient library lore, including the fact that libraries have been an

element of civilized society for 5,500 years.

And, for public lectures, there is a new 178-seat auditorium. George

Plimpton, the writer, editor and sometime actor, was to provide kickoff

interviews this week with authors, critics and professors of literature, art

and history.

Technically, said Paul LeClerc, president and chief executive of the New

York Public Library, South Court is not the first new construction at the

research center at 42nd and Fifth. In 1991, a two-level, 121,500- square-foot

underground stack extension that reaches to Sixth Avenue was excavated beneath

Bryant Park. Even so, LeClerc said, "I consider this the first addition since

1911," when the library opened.

In the age of the Internet, he continued, libraries have "a responsibility

for training the public in how to use all this information technology. ...It

would be a false assumption that those coming to us would automatically know

how to exploit the rich resources of this library, not only the printed realm

but also the realm of electronic information."

It's unclear how Mayor Michael Bloomberg's call for a 15 percent budget cut

will affect South Court operations or the New York Public Library as a whole.

"We're advocating strongly for maximum levels of support," libraries being

"essential resources," LeClerc said. New Yorkers, he added, "use their

libraries more than any other people on the planet."

After Sept. 11, he pointed out, "patronage of the New York Public Library

soared....The number of visits to the branches went up by 12 percent, and the

number of volumes circulating went up by 19 percent," compared to the same

quarter in 2000, a year in which the entire 213-library system had what LeClerc

called "40 million physical reader visits."

South Court, which took 2 1/2 years to construct, was designed by the

Manhattan architectural firm of Davis Brody Bond Llp. The project was paid for

by a $17.5-million capital construction grant from the City of New York, plus

bond financing. The Starr Foundation gave $1.5 million for programs and

operations, and the Altman Foundation gave $1 million. Philanthropist Celeste

Bartos provided what the library calls "a major leadership gift," though

spokeswomen declined to specify the amount.

LeClerc noted that the architects had captured, with their liberal use of

glass, "the great notion of transparency" in South Court.

"We are now running close to half a billion hits a year on our Web site,

with readers coming to us on a monthly basis from 180 different countries," he

said.

"Overnight, through the World Wide Web, the New York Public Library has

become an authentic global information resource - and that means the walls

disappear."

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