New York Public Library's centennial

The institution turns 100 on Monday 23, and celebrates its birthday with a series of special events. Before you hit the festivities, brush up on your library trivia with our timeline.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy New York Public Library

    1911: An Institution is born

    1911: An Institution is born

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    1930s: The lions come of age

    1930s: The lions come of age

  • Photograph: Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

    1984: The library gets (ghost)busted

    1984: The library gets (ghost)busted

  • Photograph: Courtesy New York Public Library

    1987: The stacks go underground

    1987: The stacks go underground

  • Photograph: Courtesy New York Public Library

    1998: Rose Main Reading Room is renovated

    1998: Rose Main Reading Room is renovated

  • Photograph: Courtesy New York Public Library

    2004: Cleaning Patience and Fortitude

    2004: Cleaning Patience and Fortitude

  • 2008: Sex and the City stages a wedding

    2008: Sex and the City stages a wedding

Photograph: Courtesy New York Public Library

1911: An Institution is born

1911: An Institution is born

1911: An institution is born
The New York Public Library opens its main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue on May 23, 1911. At the time, the collection is made up of more than 1 million books and other works (now it's closer to 50 million), with more than 75 miles of shelves—enough to circle the island of Manhattan more than twice. "This is the biggest library collection that's democratically accessible," says NYPL president Paul LeClerc. "It's been nicknamed 'the people's palace.'"

1930s: The lions come of age
Before the '30s, the marble lions flanking the library's main entrance are informally known as Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders and namesakes—John Jacob Astor and James Lenox—of the two major libraries that were consolidated into the NYPL. During the Depression, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renames the pair Patience and Fortitude, to represent the qualities he thought New Yorkers would need to survive the decade.

1951: Bomb scares
In April, a small pipe bomb explodes in one of the main branch's phone booths, causing minor damage. Five years later, on Christmas Eve, a library clerk discovers a similar device and throws it into Bryant Park; this time, the explosive never detonates. Both incendiary devices are later revealed to be the work of "the Mad Bomber," a disgruntled, mentally troubled former Con Ed employee who planted more than 30 bombs around the city throughout the '40s and '50s (amazingly, no one was killed).

1965: Landmark status
The institution's main building is one of the earliest structures to be declared a National Historic Landmark. The designation ensures that its Beaux Arts--style architecture wouldn't meet the same wrecking-ball fate of other NYC landmarks—such as the original Penn Station, which had been torn down two years earlier.

1984: The library gets (ghost)busted
In a scene from the classic comedy Ghostbusters, the titular paranormal specialists encounter the ghost of a former librarian. In 2010, Improv Everywhere reenacts the scene, chasing four bedsheeted ghosts out of the Rose Main Reading Room. The possibility of real specters roaming the stacks isn't so unlikely—Bryant Park is both a former cemetery and a Revolutionary War battleground.

1987: The stacks go underground
The NYPL expands its storage facilities under Bryant Park, adding approximately 40 miles of shelves. The subterranean vaults are buried under six feet of dirt and connected to the building by a 120-foot-long tunnel.

1998: Rose Main Reading Room is renovated
The regal space, which had fallen into disrepair, is revitalized, with fixtures and furniture that evoke its original splendor. "The paintings in the middle of the ceilings were totally gone," says LeClerc. "There were just black spaces with white plaster showing through, and a century of dust and grime covering everything." That's not the only thing that brightens up the room: Its windows are finally scraped of their World War II--era blackout paint.

2002: Spider-Man learns a valuable lesson
In the 2002 film adaptation of the comic-book series, Peter Parker lets a baddie go free, only to discover that the criminal killed his Uncle Ben in front of the library. But not before the geezer utters indispensable advice about "great responsibility." Listen next time!

2004: Cleaning Patience and Fortitude
The library's guardians are professionally primped, filling in the cracks that developed over decades of winter punishment. To prevent future damage, the lions are also advised against wearing their traditional Christmastime wreaths. "If water seeps in, it can cause significant damage, and since these are treasures, [the restoration expert] told me, 'Don't put anything on them again,'" says LeClerc. "We tried the wreaths one final time, because they were plastic, and when we took them off each lion had stain marks on its back. I said, forget it."

2007: The main branch gets a face-lift
The structure, renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for the NYC businessman who ponied up $100 million for the project, undergoes a facade renovation. "The intention was to turn it back to the gorgeous, pristine quality it had when it was first built," say LeClerc. "In addition to that, [we've installed] a high-end light scheme, inspired by the buildings that you see in Paris at night. On May 23, on the centennial, we'll flip the switch for the first time to illuminate the building."

2008: Sex and the City stages a wedding
Carrie and Mr. Big nearly tie the knot at the library, until—spoiler alert—he ditches her at the altar (actually, at the top of a staircase within the main branch).

2011: The library turns 100
To celebrate its centennial, the library stages a new exhibit, "Celebrating 100 Years," featuring artifacts from the institution's extensive archives. The library also produces a book, Know the Past, Find the Future: The New York Public Library at 100, to mark the occasion; in it, famous New Yorkers—including Jonathan Franzen, Lou Reed and members of Vampire Weekend—discuss their favorite items in the collection. Look for the tome to be distributed free in libraries, parks, subways and buses around NYC.

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