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Upheaval at the New York Public Library | The Nation

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Upheaval at the New York Public Library

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In July 2010, Hilde Hoogenboom, a professor of Russian literature at Arizona State University, sent an impassioned missive to Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, to protest the closure of the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic division. It “was one of the best places to work in the world,” she wrote. Indeed, in the universe of Russian studies, the Slavic division was legendary. “I recall [it] as an agreeably dim sort of place, with a faintly reverential, almost cathedral-like ambience,” George Kennan said in 1987. Among its 750,000 items are the first book printed in Moscow, the “Anonymous” Gospels; a first edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and John Reed’s collection of broadsides and posters from the Russian Revolution. Trotsky and Nabokov toiled in the division’s reading room. Václav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev made visits of tribute.

Shelby Kinney-Lang contributed research to this article.

About the Author

Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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Eleven weeks later, a senior NYPL official replied on LeClerc’s behalf: “If I may put this matter into its sadly grim financial context, in the last two fiscal years our budget has been reduced by $20 million and our workforce by 300 positions. While we recognized and prized the special cultural and scholarly resource that was the Slavic Reading Room, we simply could no longer afford to operate it.”

The New York Public Library, which comprises four research libraries and eighty-seven branch libraries, has seen other cutbacks as well. Since 2008 its workforce has been reduced by 27 percent. In a recent newsletter to library supporters, the institution reported that its acquisitions budget for books, CDs and DVDs had been slashed by 26 percent.

Despite these austerity measures, NYPL executives are pushing ahead with a gargantuan renovation of the Forty-second Street library, the crown jewel of the system. The details of the Central Library Plan (CLP) are closely guarded, but it has already sparked criticism among staff members, who worry that the makeover would not only weaken one of the world’s great libraries but mar the architectural integrity of the landmark building on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008, following the Wall Street billionaire’s gift of $100 million. (Every staff member I spoke with demanded anonymity; a number of them talked openly about their fear of retribution from management.)

These are arduous times for public library systems. More people are using libraries during the economic downturn, but state and local legislators are steadily cutting their budgets. The American Library Association notes that since 2008, “more than half the states have reported a decrease in funding, with cumulative cuts averaging greater than ten percent.” Library systems of all sizes are under pressure. The Los Angeles County public library system, which serves 3.7 million citizens, faces a structural deficit of $22 million a year for the next decade. Budget cuts have forced the Seattle Public Library, one of the nation’s finest, to shut down for a week in late summer. Thomas Galante, CEO of the bustling Queens Library, which serves hundreds of thousands of immigrants in New York City, spoke reverently about one healthy and outstanding public library—in Toronto.

The man who must contend with the NYPL’s budget difficulties is its new president, a tall, amiable, casually dressed political scientist named Anthony Marx, who started at the library on July 1. Marx had been the president of Amherst College, where during his eight-year tenure he raised great sums of money and did much to diversify the student body. But obtaining the financial resources to sustain the NYPL in these lean and mean times is a task that’s sure to keep Marx tossing in his bed at night. (Personal reasons may also keep Marx from sleeping soundly: on the afternoon of November 6 he was arrested in Upper Manhattan for driving while intoxicated; his blood alcohol level was 0.19. He is scheduled to appear in court on December 9.) He faces an additional challenge with the CLP, devised by his predecessor and scheduled to be completed in 2015.

The centerpiece of the CLP—expected to cost anywhere from $250 million to $350 million—is the construction of a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by British architect Norman Foster, in the vast interior of the Schwarzman Building. To make space for this library within the library, the seven levels of original stacks beneath the third-floor Rose Reading Room—stacks that hold 3 million books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves—will be demolished (the exterior of the building is landmarked; the stacks are not). When the new library is completed, patrons will be able to leave the building with borrowed books and other materials; for decades, those materials had to be used inside the library.

NYPL officials have grand hopes for their new high-tech circulating facility: it will be “the largest comprehensive library open to the public in human history,” LeClerc wrote in an internal NYPL publication in 2008. How will it be paid for? The City of New York will provide about $150 million for the project. The NYPL expects to raise another $100–$200 million by selling off two prominent libraries in its system: the busy (but decrepit) Mid-Manhattan branch library on Fortieth Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on Thirty-fourth Street, a research library that opened in 1996 to considerable fanfare.

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Today, top NYPL officials talk about the CLP—announced in late 2008 but delayed by the economic downturn—as a done deal. But Marx says the NYPL’s powerful board of trustees has not yet given its final stamp of approval; he adds that he is still analyzing the plan. Yet the CLP has gathered an enormous amount of momentum. On June 29 I was sitting in the cavernous office of Ann Thornton, a top NYPL librarian, when LeClerc, just days from retirement, burst in, in a state of high excitement. “Here’s the news,” he declared. “We got the $100 million from the city. Isn’t it just fantastic?” (Noting my puzzled look, LeClerc turned to me and said, “It’s for Norman Foster’s renovation of this building.”) Thornton jumped to her feet and embraced him. “Paul, that’s wonderful!”

The CLP raises thorny questions. Will Forty-second Street remain a serene environment for scholars, serious readers, intellectuals and book lovers, or will it be converted into a noisy, tumultuous branch library? Might the $250–$350 million designated for the renovation of Forty-second Street be better spent on the eighty-seven branch libraries, many of which need structural improvements as well as books, periodicals, DVDs and computers? Finally, there is the question of the public good. NYPL executives say the objective of the CLP, which involves the sale of two prime Manhattan properties, is to democratize the Forty-second Street library, incorporate the latest digital technology and serve the public. They emphasize their desire to expand public access to Forty-second Street: Thornton told me that in a building of 600,000 square feet, only 32 percent of that space is available for public use. After the renovation, she says, users will have access to almost 70 percent of the building.

NYPL executives may be keen to serve the public, but they are not so keen to engage it. Many aspects of the CLP remain cloaked in secrecy, and top NYPL staff imparted details of the plan only with great reluctance. The NYPL’s mission statement, which executives are quick to invoke, highlights the word “accountability.” My reporting, which included sixty interviews, left me with a different impression: the NYPL preaches accountability, but it doesn’t always practice it.

When the Beaux-Arts building at Forty-second Street, designed by famed architects Carrère and Hastings, opened on May 23, 1911, more than 30,000 people came to see a library that had taken twelve years to construct. “The first book to be delivered,” Phyllis Dain wrote in her 1972 history of the NYPL, “seven minutes after deposit of the call slip, was a Russian-language study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy.” Over the decades, the NYPL would acquire a spectacular range of materials: Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Walt Whitman’s personal copy of Leaves of Grass, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Man Ray’s portrait of Arnold Schoenberg, Oscar Wilde’s early typewritten versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, Beethoven’s sketches for the “Archduke Trio,” a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The list goes on.

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