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53rd Street Library Celebrates Reopening as Book Advocates Protest Outside

 The New York Public Library unveiled its newly reopened Donnell Library branch on Monday.
Donnell Library images
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MIDTOWN — The long-closed Donnell Library branch of the New York Public library reopened Monday as the 53rd Street Library, with politicians and library officials showing off the new space even as protesters outside called the new space a shell of the library's former self.

The new library, which takes up part of the the ground floor and two basement levels of the new Baccarat Hotel at 18 W. 53rd St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was finally unveiled nearly a decade after the NYPL announced plans for the branch’s future.

The new space is made up of a glassy facade that throws light into some parts of the floors below, including the library's two-story amphitheater-style gathering area. There's also a computer lab on the second lower level, and a children's reading space on the very bottom floor.

But the new library makes up only about half the space of the original Donnell branch, and about 20 library advocates showed up Monday during he library's reopening to protest what they described as a capitulation to corporate interests, according to Michael White, of the Committee to Save the NYPL.

“Smaller libraries means less access to books, and if we can’t access this knowledge through the library, it disappears,” he said.

But NYPL President Tony Marx hailed the reopening — which brings the number of NYPL branches to 89 — as a win for the Midtown community.

“New Yorkers need their libraries, they depend on their libraries, and it is up to us to meet those needs,” Marx said. 

The rebuilt Donnell Library and the tower above it has been years in the making. An initial developer, Orient Express Hotels, agreed to pay $59 million for the property in order to develop a luxury hotel tower with a library in the hotel’s basement levels.

The plan was announced in 2007 and the library was demolished in 2009, but it hit road blocks when Orient Express Hotels bowed out citing complications from the financial crisis.

“None of us foresaw the financial difficulties of 2008 and 2009, which got in the way of our initial plan,” Marx said.

Things got back on track in 2011 when investors Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital teamed up to develop the hotel and the basement branch, but the projected 2014 start date for library construction missed the mark by a year, and work on the new branch did not begin until February 2015.

With dozens of desktop and laptop computers and plans for tech-education programs, the library is focused on the future, according to Genoveve Stowell, who is taking over the branch as managing librarian.

“I believe that modern libraries should be engaged with the technological changes that permeate our era,” she said.

White was concerned that the combination of public space at the foot of a private tower had served as a prototype for the Brooklyn Heights Library deal, and would set a precedent for other development projects involving libraries.

“This deal was a model, and is part of what led to the Brooklyn Heights deal,” White said, as he handed out signs to his compatriots.

In addition to the reduced space, the protesters were angry about the reduced number of physical books at the new library, which stands at about 20,000, according to NYPL spokeswoman Angela Montefinise, thousands fewer than the former library's collection.

One reason the number of books at the branch is down is the redeployment of several special collections, including the bulk of the world languages collections, which Marx said could be of more use in other branches where more foreign language-speaking patrons can access them.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount paid for the property.