Fifteen minutes before the New York Public Library opens, it's clear why the library is called the People's Palace, the university where nobody graduates, and the quintessential New York cultural institution.
On the marble steps, just above the library's famed lions, Patience and Fortitude, stands Milagros Ortiz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. It is her first trip to the library, and she has come to try to find information about special-education classes in Puerto Rico. Nearby is Robert Jones, an African-American, who plans to spend part of the day studying for his political science exams at Pace University. And, leaning against a column is Long Island resident Ralph Schiano, who is there to kill some time by trying to find a library exhibit.
The scene is exactly what the library wants as it begins a year-long 100th anniversary celebration that started on May 20. ''It really is a place where anybody can come,'' says Barbara Goldsmith, an author and trustee of the library.
Former NYPL President Vartan Gregorian, now the president of Brown University, says the library is the kind of place where ''aspiring immigrants and children, all anonymously, can partake in the quest for knowledge, information, and spiritual solace, or choose it merely as a place to go.''
Author Calvin Trillin, another library trustee, calls the NYPL, ''The most democratic of the great cultural institutions in New York -- there are no tickets, no memberships, and it is at the highest level, so if someone walks in off the street they are basically at the same level [of access] as a graduate student at Harvard.''
But most people start at a lower level -- usually the wooden information desk inside Astor Hall, the vaulted marble entrance to the Renaissance Revival-style building. Volunteer Marian Oliva directs a continuous flow of visitors toward the library's rooms. How many people stop to ask for directions?
''I don't know, it's been constant all day,'' she replies after sending a man looking for books in Arabic to a different library. More than 1.3 million people per year use the building.
A significant portion of those asking for directions will end up in room 315, also known as the Main Reading Room, one of the largest no-column rooms in the world. When the building was designed -- initially on the back of a napkin -- John Shaw Billings, the first director, decreed that the room should be on the top floor so that it received natural light and was away from street noise.
Today, some parts of the room are the same as when it opened in 1911. Readers are still using the same heavy wooden tables with their Tiffany-designed lamps. Books are still retrieved by sending call slips down pneumatic tubes to pages to bring the books up from the stacks. However, there are also plenty of changes in the room.
Gone is the old card catalog. Every book and item acquired by the library since 1972 is now in a computer database. A significant portion of the earlier acquisitions are cataloged in 800 volumes.
Over the years, the library has accumulated what its president, Paul LeClerc, calls a stunningly large collection. Within the library are 39 million items, including 12 million books. There are original musical scores, 4,000-year-old Babylonian tablets, and even an enormous comic-book and baseball-card collection.
The accumulation makes the NYPL one of the top 10 research libraries in the world. It holds great collections of original documents on native and African-Americans, and on American history and literature. What makes it different from other great libraries, however, is that ''anybody can come to us, fill out a call slip, ask for one of our books and get it, without having to show a piece of identification, pay a library fee, or register as a reader,'' LeClerc says.
Unlike most libraries, there are no stacks to walk through. Instead, pages scour the 90 miles of bookshelves, including 37 miles under Bryant Park, to find a request. ''We average about 10 minutes per request,'' says Robert Sink, archivist and records manager.
The general reading room has become home to many of the nation's historians and authors. The late Jacqueline Onassis used the library when she was an editor. Filmmaker Ken Burns made extensive use of the library's photos for his epics on baseball and the Civil War. Lila and DeWitt Wallace used the periodical section to start Readers Digest.
Mr. Trillin says he uses the library for research. He recalls looking for material on the small Pacific island nation of Nauru. ''I thought, I don't imagine they will have something on this, but I'll look in the card index. There were 70 entries, including the nation's Constitution. I was amazed.''
In the library it's easy to go from ''amazed'' to ''Believe it or not.'' Norbert Pearlroth, the author of ''Ripley's Believe it or Not,'' did his research in the library. ''He started with 'A' and everyday would ask for 25 books. When he died, he had gotten to 'G,' '' recalls Rodney Phillips, associate director for the humanities, social sciences, and special collections.
Pearlroth would find it hard to keep up with the NYPL today since the library acquires 150,000 items per year. The library is not content to merely buy books with its $10-million annual acquisitions budget. It is an active collector, sending staff members to such places as Berlin for the collapse of the Wall, Nicaragua for the elections, and to Cuba during the embargo. In 1920, the director of the library went to Russia to collect material on the Bolshevik Revolution.
''Today our collection of Russian avant-garde books -- some of them produced in people's kitchens -- is extremely valuable,'' Phillips says.
Although there are few detractors, the most common complaint concerns the NYPL's shortened hours at some of its branches, the result of city budget cuts. But over the past two fiscal years, the library has been open six days a week. There are also the usual library complaints about the lack of availability of popular books. The NYPL's public affairs department has received only two letters of complaint in the past three years.
Although the library is proud of its collections, the most used area of the NYPL is the business and commerce collection. New Yorkers are attracted to the 600 business journals, standard databases, and electronic census information.
The library hopes to alleviate the overcrowding in the business section this year when it opens a new Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) eight blocks south of the Main Library. The $100-million building will have 100 computer workstations and 30 training stations for users to learn to search databases.
''It will be our giant leap into an environment that is very much an electronic place,'' says William Walker, acting Andrew W. Mellon director of the Research Libraries. he cautions however that the electronic medium ''will not replace libraries'' but will aid researchers where electronic information ''is an extremely important commodity.''
The shift to the electronic age will not stop at the Internet. ''Things are shifting from an exclusive focus on possession to letting the readers get to things no matter where they are in the world,'' LeClerc says. Thus, the NYPL is planning to ''digitize'' parts of its own collection -- items for which it owns the intellectual property rights. This will allow readers in other libraries to access these items.
The NYPL is part of the 15-member National Digital Library Federation, which was formed last month. The initial goal of the group, says Winston Tabb, associate librarian of the Library of Congress, is to focus on Americana.
LeClerc estimates that by the turn of the century 10 percent of the acquisition budget will be used to access information outside the library. All of this will cost ''lots of money,'' says LeClerc, who will only say the NYPL, which is a private nonprofit, needs to raise several hundred million dollars to take the NYPL into the 21st century.
As it enters its second century, the library faces other challenges. Its resources are being stretched as students from the public school system spill into the library because their school's own libraries are inadequate. It also has to find ways to conserve the millions of books printed on acid paper.
LeClerc says the library will also have to learn how to save electronic information. ''What if Virginia Woolf had preserved her manuscripts on floppy disks instead of paper?'' he asks. ''When we take something in, we make the commitment to keep it forever.''