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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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The NYPL was a vital institution in twentieth-century New York: a refuge and a magnet for immigrants, writers, intellectuals, students, the unemployed and lost souls. Dain writes that in 1917 the young David Ben-Gurion used the NYPL to research his first book. In a New York Times essay about his early years as an Irish immigrant in the city in the early 1950s, Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, recalled, “It was Tim Costello who told me to get out of his bar and walk a few blocks to where I’d see two lions, and to go in there and get myself a library card…. Up on the third floor, I discovered Paradise: the great reference room with its hundreds of index-card drawers. I asked a librarian if it would be all right to look in the drawers and he said, ‘Of course, of course, anything you like.’”

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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For the NYPL, the 1960s and ’70s were a period of decay and decrepitude. The most evocative account of that period is Philip Hamburger’s 1986 New Yorker profile of Vartan Gregorian, who took over the NYPL presidency in 1981. His colleagues reminisced about the rot that greeted Gregorian: “that beautiful, aging building, just being taken for granted, and going downhill fast”; “the back yard is Bryant Park—drunks, drugs.” Gregorian revitalized the library with prodigious fundraising from individuals, foundations and corporations 
($10 million from the Vincent Astor Foundation; $1 million from Exxon, etc.), and a series of lavish dinners and events—all necessary: Hamburger’s sources stressed that while the Library of Congress received more than $200 million annually from the government, the NYPL had to scramble for funds—a situation very much the case today.

Gregorian was succeeded by LeClerc, a French literature scholar. Many staff considered LeClerc frosty and aloof, but he accomplished much in his sixteen years at the NYPL: a
$50 million renovation of the main branch’s facade; a $15 million renovation of the magisterial Rose Reading Room; a series of first-rate exhibitions; the creation of eight branch libraries; the launching of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers; the acquisition of major manuscript collections; and some fine web initiatives, including the much-praised digital gallery.

Like Gregorian, LeClerc was a skilled fundraiser. In 2008 he persuaded Schwarzman, one of his trustees, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of the Blackstone private equity group, to donate $100 million to the NYPL. In recognition of the gift, Schwarzman’s name was carved into the facade at Forty-second Street in five prominent places. (Schwarzman told the Times it was the NYPL’s notion—not his—to rename the main branch for him. He added that it was a “pretty good” idea.) However, the local community board opposed the five carvings, on the grounds that they were “excessive and unnecessarily intrusive to this iconic facade.” (LeClerc, whose salary and benefits package in 2009 was $866,865, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Other controversies trailed LeClerc. Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, Mark Singer reported that the NYPL had allowed 500 cartons of printed pamphlets, some of which were produced in the seventeenth century, to be sold to rare book dealers. In 2005 the NYPL sold a renowned painting from its collection, Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits, for $35 million in a closed auction at Sotheby’s. (The buyer was Walmart heir Alice Walton.) That closed auction inspired a scorching essay by Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who described the process as “hasty and secretive.” In 2007 the NYPL agreed to sell a beloved branch library—the Donnell, across from the Museum of Modern Art—to Orient-Express Hotels for $59 million. A refurbished Donnell was supposed to be incorporated into a new hotel on the site in 2011. But the economic downturn prompted Orient-Express to extricate itself from the deal, and the building has been vacant for more than three years. The Orient-Express contract was recently transferred to two developers, who finally paid the NYPL. But local residents will have to wait until late 2014 for the Donnell library to reopen.

* * *

On a sweltering July afternoon, I called on the NYPL’s new president in his elegant wood-paneled office on the second floor of the Schwarzman Building. Marx was born in 1959 to parents who took flight from Hitler’s Germany. He was raised in the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan, where he haunted the local branch of the NYPL. He attended Wesleyan and became active in the student movement against apartheid, which had captured his imagination. After graduation he went to South Africa. He was keen to see—in his words—the place he had been “yelling and screaming about”; he also wanted “adventure.” There, in what he now sees as the “pivotal moment” of his life, Marx helped create a preparatory institution, Khanya College, which he describes as a “one-year residential college for a select group of African students who had been undereducated by apartheid.” Those were heady days for Marx: his residence in 1984 was a “commune of blacks and whites living illegally together, where we would get raided, and amazing people would come through hiding from the police.”

After graduate study at Princeton, Marx was hired by Columbia as a professor of political science in 1990. In addition to his academic duties, he organized a program to help Columbia undergraduates get fast-tracked to teaching jobs in New York City public schools. But writing academic monographs wearied him. Says his friend Robert Townsend, an English professor at Amherst, “He told me he’d reached the end of a scholarship track, and that he wanted to switch to something else. That’s good self-knowledge.” In 2002 Marx’s name was given to a search committee at Amherst hunting for a new president. They chose Marx; he was 43. In his eight years at Amherst, the college raised nearly $500 million. Marx secured two remarkable gifts—one for $100 million and the other for $25 million.

His fundraising efforts were matched by a passionate campaign, resisted by some faculty members, to bring non-elite and foreign students into the ranks of one of America’s most selective private colleges: as a result, students of color constitute almost 43 percent of Amherst’s freshman class. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who writes frequently on education, credits Marx with helping to “change the conversation in higher education about diversity, expanding it beyond race to include socioeconomic status. He used his position of leadership and his charisma to bring attention to the idea that having rich kids of all colors wasn’t enough. Second, he showed that excellence and economic diversity were two sides of the same coin, not competing values. Over a five-year period, he oversaw a 24 percent increase in students eligible for Pell grants even as other institutions were seeing declines.”

Marx’s friends say his interests and passions—egalitarianism, the democratization of knowledge, public access to information—make the NYPL an ideal fit for him. (They also say he was eager to return to New York. His wife, Karen Barkey, teaches at Columbia.) But Marx faces a steep institutional learning curve: the NYPL is a much more complex and labyrinthine institution than Amherst College. Amherst has 835 employees; the NYPL has over 2,200 employees in more than ninety locations, many of them unionized. At Amherst, Marx faced opposition from perhaps 15–20 percent of the faculty, who questioned his admissions policies and wondered if Amherst could adequately support students from non-elite backgrounds. (Some professors also felt that Marx’s rhetoric was too sanctimonious.) In New York City, by contrast, he could find himself at odds with a wide constellation of political opponents and critics. At Amherst, Marx worked harmoniously with a twenty-person board of trustees; the NYPL’s board comprises sixty-two people—some of whom contribute hefty sums to the institution. Observers say the NYPL is a trustee-driven institution and that staff members approach trustee meetings with palpable anxiety and dread.

At least two matters from LeClerc’s tenure continue to reverberate in the Marx era. In September 2008 the NYPL dissolved two specialist divisions at Forty-second Street: the Slavic and Baltic division and the Asian and Middle Eastern division. Three of the divisions’ old-fashioned reading rooms were also shut down. The closing of the Slavic and Asian and Middle Eastern divisions surprised their devoted users, many of them scholars. The scholars I talked with lamented the covert way the decision was made. Some NYPL staff are sympathetic. Says one, “It was a stealth closure, a fait accompli. It was done in a way to prevent protests.” The reading rooms are closed to the public, but a few hints of the past remain. On a bookshelf in front of the old Slavic Reading Room are several dozen bulky maroon volumes that constitute the NYPL’s dictionary catalog of the Slavonic collection; mounted on a nearby wall are two charts of the Cyrillic transliteration system.

Questions remain about access to those collections. Since 2008 users of the Slavic collection have lamented the absence of a distinguished full-time curator, as well as full-time staff, to guarantee the safety and accessibility of Slavic materials. Not long ago, a scholar was invited into the closed stacks at Schwarzman to retrieve a book. (“We can’t read Cyrillic,” a librarian explained.) As Hoogenboom wrote in her letter to LeClerc: “Despite cutbacks in library staff at other foremost Slavic collections in the U.S., every Slavic collection of any standing in this country has a curator and several librarians.” Marx told me in July that he was “disturbed” to learn about accessibility problems with the Slavic collection. A bit of progress has since been made: on Novem-
ber 17 the NYPL confirmed the appointment of Stephen Corrsin as curator of Slavic, Baltic and Eastern European collections. But Corrsin is not full-time; he is also the curator of the Dorot Jewish Division. There is no full-time Slavic expert to serve the public and interact with scholars. (NYPL officials insist they are still committed to building and supporting their Slavic holdings.)

The anger and dismay about the closing of the two divisions have emanated mainly from the Slavic scholars. Few users, it seems, have complained about the closing of the Asian and Middle Eastern division (some veteran NYPL staff still refer to that division by its original name, the Oriental division). But the former curator of that division, John Lundquist, made a noisy departure. Marilyn Johnson’s recent work, This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, contains an interview with Lundquist, whom she describes as “a refined presence, as if he’d been polished at Oxford, or just come from tea with T.S. Eliot.” Lundquist, who has since left the NYPL, is blunt:

Our division has been dissolved. Our reading rooms have been closed. Our librarians have been reassigned…. In theory we continue as collections, the Asian and the Baltic, but I’m highly skeptical…. The whole library has been drastically downsized…. There has been nothing about this in the press, no. Obviously the library doesn’t want any publicity…. They foresee many thousands more people in this building, and that, to them, is a worthy goal. There is a perception that libraries are archaic, dead, outdated, and that everything is now on the Internet, in digital form. We are old, stooped-over people, doing old, stooped-over things. [The NYPL administration] want[s] to lighten things up, they want the library to be active and hip.

Lundquist concludes: “I gave a talk about my new book across the street at the Mid-Manhattan branch. That place is utter chaos. And it will all come here—the noise, the teenage problems, the circulating DVDs.” Lundquist was alluding to the Central Library Plan.

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