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Celebrating A Noble Space

A library and its books are among the heroes of the fantasy flick "Pleasantville," currently in theaters.

In the story, teenagers in an idealized 1950s town live in a literally black, white, and gray world. Then some begin to burst into radiant flesh tones, full of deep emotions and thoughts. Why the change? They've been going to the library and reading. (Perhaps the filmmakers didn't trust such a radical idea to carry the movie alone, since some of the teens also bring color to their cheeks in a more conventional fashion - exploring the ways of young love.)

The not-so-subtle message is that we're not quite our real selves if we're not digging beneath the surface of our lives. There's more to us than we realize. And what's found in a library can be a vehicle for that self-exploration.

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The noble role of libraries is one reason to celebrate the reopening Monday of the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Since 1911, it's been a haven for generations of inner explorers. The thoughts and plans, hopes, schemes, and dreams of humanity have been available there, free of charge, to anyone making the effort to come in the door.

Writers like Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and E.L. Doctorow have hunkered down at the long American white oak reading tables. Chester Carlson's flash of inspiration for the Xerox photocopier came there. Norbert Pearlroth spent nearly every day for more than 50 years combing for strange facts he could include in a syndicated cartoon he called "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Another seeker, DeWitt Wallace, read articles under the glowing table lamps, cut them to their essence, and republished them in his little magazine - Reader's Digest.

Renovations have closed the magnificent room for 16 months. At 78 feet by 297 feet (just under the length of a football field), with a ceiling just over 51 feet high, it's one of the largest uncolumned rooms in the nation. "It's an ennobling space made special by the scale of the room...," says Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library.

The grand beaux-arts style has been lovingly preserved. The 15 huge arched windows had been painted black as a protection against World War II air raids. Now clear glass lets abundant light in again. The 42 restored oak tables seat 16 readers each, a total of 636 seats. Thirty tables are wired for the use of laptop computers and for access to the Internet and the library's databases.

The Reading Room is once again a work of art worthy of the gaping gazes of tourists. But its deeper value lies as a more-useful-than-ever entryway into the world of ideas.

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