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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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NYPL officials insist that the CLP is primarily about consolidation and cost-cutting. “We need to get more efficient,” a high-ranking official told me. “Our sources of revenue from the city and state are not keeping up with inflation. We’ve got to find ways to structurally reduce our costs. And one way to do that is to have less overall square footage systemwide, because every square foot of space costs money to clean it, to maintain it and to staff it.” (The City of New York provides most of the funding for the branch libraries; the four research libraries, including Forty-second Street, are sustained to a great extent by private philanthropy and an endowment of $813 million.)

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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The demise of the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan is the end of a Bloomberg-era castle in the sky.

After public outcry, the library’s $300 million project to demolish stacks and sell off branch libraries has collapsed.

Marx frames the CLP as a matter of public access. He argues that too much of the Schwarzman Building is off-limits and that exquisite rooms are used as storage spaces. Says Marx, “The driver of the idea of a central library plan is that in the back quarter of this iconic building are stacks of books that are rarely used. We can store and get access to those books without having to take the prime space in a prime location in New York City. To the degree that we can make that space available, and replace books with people, that’s the future of where libraries are going.”

One of the NYPL’s more energetic trustees, Carl Pforzheimer III (whose family endowed a majestic room in the main branch, the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle), puts it a little differently: “The stacks are important to have, but it’s more important to use the space properly for the future.” Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library and a longtime NYPL trustee, takes the same view—that Forty-second Street should be reconfigured to make room for computers and public spaces where users can talk with one another. Darnton contests the notion that removing 3 million books from Forty-second Street constitutes a retreat from the NYPL’s research mission. “Books can be rearranged in lots of ways,” he says. “What you need to do is to assure accessibility” to the books “and to increase the growth of your collections.”

How accessible will the books be? NYPL officials say they will put them in two colossal storage facilities: one behind the library below Bryant Park, the other in Princeton, New Jersey. (NYPL officials say the latter facility is far superior to the Forty-second Street stacks in terms of climate control; they also affirm that materials can be faxed and e-mailed to patrons at Forty-second Street.) And what about those users who need books immediately from the Princeton facility? NYPL officials uniformly insist that the materials can be transported to Forty-second Street in twenty-four hours; but staff members dispute that, saying that book delivery can take up to five days. (I recently waited two weeks for materials that never arrived; “off-site” requests have become onerous in recent years. Also, a great many books seem to be missing from the library.) Staff members are concerned that books being transported from Princeton to Forty-second Street might be damaged en route.

Storage and book delivery are paramount issues for library staff, some of whom maintain that the Schwarzman Building has become less attractive to scholars, researchers and serious readers. One can and does strike gold at the NYPL; still, a downward trend is evident. One employee says, “I know many people who do not come to Forty-second Street anymore because they cannot get the books they need to work there.” Top NYPL administrators bristle at those words, but the statistics show that a large gap has opened up between NYPL and other top research libraries. In 2008, according to data from the Association of Research Libraries, the four research libraries of the NYPL spent
$15.2 million on “library materials expenditures.” In 2010 the NYPL spent $10.8 million. By contrast, in that year Harvard spent $32.3 million; Columbia, $26.4 million; and Princeton, $23.1 million. (A pilot program involving NYPL, New York University and Columbia allows “vetted” NYPL users with a “sustained research need” to check out certain books from the libraries of NYU and Columbia. This program—by which books can leave the Schwarzman Building for the first time in decades—seems to be a tacit acknowledgment by the NYPL that it can’t keep up with those institutions.)

One staff member told me about the recent experience of a researcher who came to the Schwarzman Building for scholarly reference books. The books, it turned out, were in the Princeton storage facility. “She didn’t want to go to the trouble to call the whole set from off-site, and to renew it every week, and this and that,” the staffer explained. Columbia’s library had those books on the shelf, so she went there. “I think her experience counts for exactly zero with the current library administration,” the staff member told me. “That’s not the kind of reader they want—this woman probably doesn’t even know how to tweet.”

The pungency of that remark suggests several things: the low staff morale at the NYPL’s research libraries (morale has fallen further since the news of Marx’s DWI arrest landed in the papers); the deep-seated suspicion many staff members feel toward NYPL executives, some of whom have MBAs but not library science degrees; a feeling among some that the NYPL administration is excessively enamored of social media and Google Books (a plan to digitize tens of millions of books, now in legal limbo) to the detriment of old and new materials printed on paper; and widespread staff skepticism about the CLP. Nearly every employee I talked with expressed affection for the old stacks at Forty-second Street and horror at the idea that those thousands of shelves might be gutted. “The whole building is a single architectural masterpiece,” says one. “The CLP would basically destroy half the library.”

Staff members have many questions about the CLP: if a principal goal is to tear down the stacks and replace books with computers, why not refurbish Mid-Manhattan, or the much newer Science, Industry and Business Library, as a modern computer center, thereby preserving Forty-second Street for its original purpose—the housing of books and printed materials?

Devotees of New York City architecture are also growing alarmed. Charles Warren, a Manhattan architect who co-wrote a 2006 book about Carrère and Hastings, says, “The building is a machine for reading books in. The stacks are part of what the building is. There’s an idea there: that the books are in the center and they rise up out of that machine into the reading room to serve the people. It’s a whole conception that will be turned on its head by ripping out the stacks. It’s a terrible thing to do.” New York–based scholars also express concern about demolishing the stacks. David Levering-Lewis, an NYU historian twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, says, “We would need to review that very carefully, and perhaps resist it.”

Staff members were aroused by a September 18 Times article that mentioned Norman Foster, the architect hired to renovate Forty-second Street. The article, by Philip Nobel, disclosed that one of Foster’s prominent buildings in Las Vegas, the Harmon, will soon be torn down; according to the article, “construction flaws were found years ago.”

* * *

In mid-August I accompanied Marx on a tour of four NYPL branch libraries in Upper Manhattan. (An NYPL manager did the driving.) Our second stop was a branch on 160th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, in a densely populated section of Washington Heights. Things looked grim from the outside: the facade’s elegant nameplate had been defaced with spray paint, and the NYPL flag was in tatters. But the branch was full of users. At the end of the tour, the director asked Marx, “Would you like to see the custodian’s apartment?”

Marx hesitated. The expression on his face suggested that showing the apartment to a reporter might not be the best idea, but his finer instincts prevailed. As we mounted the stairs to the top of the building, the director explained that when the branch libraries were constructed, with funds from Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900s, the top floor was given to a custodian, who lived there with his family. The apartment we were about to see had been vacant for half a century.

The director opened the door, and suddenly we were in Jacob Riis’s New York. The space was pitch black, except for a bit of sunlight coming through dingy windows. I saw rubble, cobwebs, peeling paint and an ancient tenement bathtub; there were six bedrooms and a spacious kitchen. Why was this space never renovated and incorporated into the bustling library downstairs? The director replied that there was never enough money. Later that day we visited the George Bruce branch library on 125th Street in Harlem. That building, too, had an empty custodian’s apartment. I asked the director what she would do with it if funds were available to renovate. “I’d use it for a teen center,” she said. When asked about her branch’s needs, she quickly answered, “Ten more computers.”

A few weeks earlier, sitting in Marx’s office, I had asked whether a significant portion of the $250–$350 million designated for the Central Library Plan should go instead to the eighty-seven branch libraries. I could see the annoyance in his eyes as he replied, “I won’t sacrifice what those branches can do for the opulence of Forty-second Street.” But Marx didn’t say how he would get the money to fully renovate the branches, which need a lot of help: for instance, the famed Jefferson Market Library in the heart of Greenwich Village has been encased by scaffolding for ten years; that branch has no public restrooms. A staff member there told me that a shortage of money explains the glacial pace of the renovation. Reconfiguring the CLP in a way that would benefit the branches may require delicate negotiations between Marx and the board of trustees, which appears to be strongly committed to the CLP.

Although stabilizing and improving the finances of the NYPL is Marx’s principal order of business, incorporating the voices of the community into the decision-making process will be another challenge for him. One word that comes up frequently is “secrecy.” Staff members use it to describe the routine behavior of the NYPL administration; activists who resisted the closing of the Donnell employed it; the scholar/activists galvanized by the Slavic and Baltic division’s shutdown used it; and Michael Kimmelman mentioned it in his Times essay about the NYPL’s sale of the Durand painting. Kimmelman’s words still resonate: “It’s time for transparency. Increasingly we demand it from government, the media and Wall Street, in response to dwindling public faith. The same should apply to libraries and museums, which also regularly test our trust.”

The NYPL’s responsiveness to the public was put to the test in Harlem. In the spring of last year Howard Dodson, longtime director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—one of the NYPL’s four research libraries and a revered institution in Harlem—announced his retirement. Some local residents, according to the Times, speculated that the Schomburg’s enormous collection would be transferred to Forty-second Street; others postulated that the Schomburg would abandon Harlem for New Jersey. In response to those rumors, and the passions they ignited, the NYPL convened a “community conversation” in the Schomburg’s auditorium on 135th Street, which lasted for two hours. Onstage were LeClerc, Dodson, actress Ruby Dee and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz. LeClerc assured the crowd that the Schomburg was secure in Harlem. But people who know the building well say it needs extensive renovations and new computers.

It was wise of LeClerc to convene a meeting in Harlem. Rumors were dissipated; facts were presented; opinions were exchanged. The theory of accountability was put into practice. Marx would do well to convene another “community conversation,” at which the public can articulate its feelings not only about the contours of the Central Library Plan but about the shape of the entire New York Public Library in the years to come.

 

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