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NEW YORK // You have to see it to believe it

My friends think I'm nuts. I was here for three days and spent two of them in the library.

Why not? I'm a lover of books, a fan of architecture, a history buff and have a passion for mural art.

It's all here, I told my critics _ a museum, an art gallery, a National Historic Landmark _ all at the Central Research Library of the New York Public Library in Manhattan.

They still gave me funny looks.

I elaborated: This library has cuneiform clay tablets dating to 2,300 B.C., a letter written by Columbus, the manuscript of Washington's 1796 Farewell Address, a copy of the Declaration of Independence handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, a Gutenberg Bible; Shakespeare's First Folios, manuscripts of Bronte, Keats, Byron, Dickens and Copperfield and prints of Manet, Durer, Rembrandt, Whistler and Picasso.

I took a breath: "They even have baseball cards from the 19th Century and a lock of Mary Shelley's hair."

Finally, I had their attention. Then I had to tell them that few of those items ever are on display.

No matter. There are plenty of other things just as impressive that are.

The Central Research Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, considered one of the greatest research libraries in the world, had its beginnings in 1895 when the collections of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox were consolidated with the trust left by Samuel J. Tilden to found a free public library. The library has grown to include four research centers and 82 branches.

After construction that cost about $9-million, it opened in 1911 and covered two city blocks. At the time it had more marble than any other building in the United States.

Today the four research libraries house about 38-million things, but only 11.8-million of them are books. There are priceless original manuscripts, maps, letters, drawings and rare books. The print collection numbers about 175,000 items. There are also about 10,000 telephone directories, as well as millions of historical photographs and paper items, from journals to theater posters.

The Central Research Library offers guided tours every day.

I recommend one.

Go in the Fifth Avenue entrance so that you can see the two large lion sculptures, quasi-guardians of this great collection of books and manuscripts.

New Yorkers love the big cats. At Christmas they cats are adorned in 60-pound holly wreaths and during the springtime with floral wreaths. Over the years they have worn top hats, tri-cornered hats and graduation caps. Tourists take snapshots of them. They show up as bookends and statues. They're parodied in cartoons.

Yes, they have been vandalized (this is New York) and repaired, and their Christmas wreaths have to be secured with heavy chains. During the Depression, the lions were named Patience and Fortitude.

On my most recent visit to the library, a dozen people had signed up for a morning tour. We gathered, awe-struck, in the Astor Hall, a splendid example of High Classical architecture with white marble grand staircases, elaborately decorated vaulted ceiling, soaring columns and arches.

An inscription carved in a marble pier says, "The City of New York has erected this building to be maintained forever as a free library for the use of the people."

That means all people, our guide Debbie Kirkham told us. "Anybody can come in here, even a non-citizen, but nothing can come out," she said. This isn't like your lending library back home.

Kirkham gave us a short overview before we took off on a whirlwind tour.

First stop, the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, resplendent with imported marble and quarry tile, bronze chandeliers, oak tables, carved walnut paneling and beautiful wall murals of major New York publishing houses. Officially, about 1,000 periodicals in 22 languages are kept here, Kirkham said.

As we walked by the Frederick Lewis Allen Writers Room (no admission without a contract), the guide related that Betty Friedan worked on The Feminine Mystique here; so did Nancy Milford (Zelda) and Theodore White (The Making of the President).

There was a quick peek into the Map Division, holding about 300,000 maps and 11,000 atlases, from hand-drawn 16th-century works of art to present-day works that trace everything from California fault lines to New York City sewer lines.

We got briefings about the Oriental, Baltic, Slavic and Jewish Divisions. For instance, the Jewish Division has an estimated 125,000 books and 550 manuscripts, including prayer books, 17th-century marriage contracts and the first Hebrew grammar published in North America.

The two-room Economic and Public Affairs Division was jammed with people. In the hallway outside, a suggestion board held handwritten notes from visitors _ comments, questions, criticisms, suggestions. Each had a typewritten response.

My favorite, from a Californian: "This library surpasses all public library facilities in California (combined), especially the electronic info section."

The Catalog Room and information desk, where you start the process to get a book, adjoins the magnificent McGraw Rotunda on the third floor.

There are no familiar card catalogs here. You have to find what you want in one of about 800 large volumes that include all the library's acquisitions until 1971, when the computer took over.

"You have to request everything," Kirkham said, "and this library is so unique it doesn't use the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system. It uses its own."

You fill out a call slip here, then go to the 300-foot-long main reading room and wait for your book to come by dumbwaiter.

The end of the room opens into the U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy Division, the last considered one of the largest collections open to the public in the country. One woman got glassy-eyed listening to this, then excused herself from the tour, muttering, "I've got to get in there."

The Berg Exhibition Room showcases the library's collections of letters, photographs, manuscripts and memorabilia. In the past it has featured writers and poets from Lord Byron and e.e. cummings to Anne Sexton.

The library's famous paintings are in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room _ masterpieces by Romney, Turner, Reynolds and others. I lost track of how many Gilbert Stuarts.

At the end of the tour, Kirkham told us that, when the library was being constructed, 68 percent of the imported marble was rejected by the architects.

"But Harvard University picked up the rejects to build their medical center," she said. "Is anyone here from Boston? I love to tell that story if there is someone here from Boston."

The tour was like an appetizer without the entree _ whetting your appetite, then telling you dinner was over.

So I went back. There were archival drawings, photographs, manuscripts, exhibits and displays to inspect more closely, the drawings of Charles Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist, to enjoy, cartoons about the lions to laugh over and so much more.

Best of all, I returned to the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room and sat down in a beautiful walnut chair just to read an everyday magazine in one of the most beautiful rooms in the world.

Then I took a quick stroll through a very tasteful gift shop and bought a nifty library sweatshirt with Fortitude on it _ or maybe it's Patience.

IF YOU GO

The Central Research Library of the New York Public Library is at 476 Fifth Ave. (at 42nd Street); telephone (212) 930-0800. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, closed Sunday.

Free guided library tours are held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday and last about 1{ hours. Be sure to pick up the library floor plan. Shorter tours (about 45 minutes) covering the exhibits only are held at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Telephone (212) 930-0911 or inquire at the information desk.

New York City is a notoriously expensive place to stay, but I found a reasonable rate at the Best Western President Hotel in the theater district (234 W 48th St., telephone (800) 826-4667) within walking distance of the library and only two blocks from the subway. The rooms are somewhat small and cramped but clean and recently redecorated. Singles started at $89 and doubles at $99.

Nancy Hoyt Belcher is a free-lance writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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