The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan
In early December 2011, The Nation revealed the contours and scale of the CLP and gave voice to critics of the plan [see Sherman, “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” December 19, 2011]. Two months later, on February 15, 2012, the trustees decided to initiate “a public engagement process” to allow citizens to comment on the CLP. But at the close of the meeting, they authorized Foster to move ahead with the schematic design for 42nd Street.
News of the CLP was spreading. On March 12, 2012, radio host Leonard Lopate of WNYC devoted a segment of his talk show to the NYPL. On April 7, Garrison Keillor satirized Marx & Co. on A Prairie Home Companion. The historian Joan Scott circulated a protest letter that drew many hundreds of distinguished names from around the world. The trustees hit the accelerator. The minutes for May 16, 2012, state: “Dr. Marx reported that the ‘listening process’ will continue during the coming months but noted the importance of also moving forward with discussions with F+P Architects.”
On December 19, 2012, the NYPL held a press conference at which Foster himself unveiled his vision for 42nd Street. The critical response was scathing. Even NYPL adviser Paul Goldberger didn’t care for the design. “The result,” he wrote on VanityFair.com, “comes off looking vaguely corporate, and more than a little like a department store.” Foster, who has thus far received $7.9 million, has been sent back to work on the design. Marx told WNYC’s Lopate on July 24 that “we’ve gone back to the drawing board.”
And that empty library across from the Museum of Modern Art? After Orient-Express pulled out in 2009, the property was sold to Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital Group, which are currently building a fifty-story hotel and residential structure on the site; the penthouse apartment has been advertised for $60 million. In May 2012, the NYPL unveiled its design for the new (and smaller) Donnell, which is set to open late in 2015. Old resentments resurfaced. “The proposed replacement for the Donnell Library,” Sonia Collins wrote in a letter to the Times, “is not truly a ‘library’ but a grand staircase leading to an empty, bookless room in the basement of a luxury high rise.” Even the NYPL’s peers have joined the critical backlash: a senior executive of the Brooklyn Public Library—which is separate from the NYPL and has announced its own plan to sell branch libraries to real estate developers—recently told Library Journal’s Norman Oder that the NYPL’s experience with the Donnell Library sale constituted “a disaster.”
But Offensend is serene; he is satisfied with the $59 million that the NYPL received in the deal. Still, renovating the new Donnell will cost the NYPL $20 million. And if he could do the Donnell sale over again, “I wouldn’t do it differently,” Offensend says. “I think it will turn out to be a fantastic improvement in service for the patrons of NYPL. The new plans have been very well received by the community.”
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What lessons are to be drawn from the CLP? First, transparency is essential when public libraries are planning immense transformations. A striking counterpoint is the Seattle Public Library, which remade its system in the late 1990s in a remarkably transparent way. According to New School professor Shannon Mattern, who writes about libraries, Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs held more than a hundred meetings with the public to solicit a wide range of input, and Seattle residents were invited to join ten public work groups. Nothing like this occurred at the NYPL. Marx asserted in February that the CLP “has been the subject of public discussion for five years.” But the decision by the trustees to sell Donnell in June 2007 without any public consultation makes a mockery of that claim.
Second, librarians must be involved in library policy. The NYPL’s staff was mostly excluded from the conception and execution of the CLP, and excessive power was concentrated in the hands of two men with no library training, both of whom provided continuity between the LeClerc and Marx regimes: Marshall Rose and David Offensend. The former is a wealthy real estate developer; the latter worked in finance before coming to the NYPL in 2004.
Third, New York needs a more robust debate about library funding. A January report by the Center for an Urban Future, “Branches of Opportunity,” has already laid the groundwork for such a discussion. District Council 37 of the public employees union AFSCME, which represents some NYPL workers, has called for 2.5 percent of existing citywide property tax assessments to be directed to libraries—money that would allow for permanent baseline funding.
Finally, public research libraries must be preserved and defended. People around the world cherish the New York Public Library for its intellectual vibrancy, its tranquillity and its utterly democratic orientation. The city has other fine research libraries, but only the NYPL is free and open to all—a fact that has animated and energized critics of the NYPL’s current leadership, many of them independent scholars and writers without an institutional home. Those critics and others, including librarians, insist that the NYPL should not be undermined by real estate deals, corporate logic or phony populism. And they are right.