As Alexandria Burns…

New York City

In “Upheaval at the New York Public Library—Shhhh!” [Dec. 19], Scott Sherman touches on many of the covert and not so covert changes happening at NYPL. These changes have proved most troubling, both to dedicated staff and to their admiring and grateful public.

The NYPL Library for the Performing Arts has experienced the same sort of mergers, dismantling of staff, and cutbacks in budget and research services as did the Forty-second Street library. The research reference desks on the third floor were closed a few years ago. Many of the reference librarians (specialists in dance, music, recorded sound or theater) were eliminated, moved off the reference desks or offered buyouts to leave NYPL. The remaining few research librarians were moved to the second-floor circulation desks and merged with the staff there.

Scholars, performing artists, writers and critics who used to come to the third-floor specialists now have to stand in line at the crowded second-floor circulation desks, where people are borrowing scores, CDs or books. When they finally reach the reference desk, they often encounter someone who does not have a specialized background or in-depth knowledge of the research collections. So they leave in frustration.

It appears that NYPL’s main goal is to increase the number of people coming in the doors to borrow materials, operate their computers and other devices, attend free classes and meet friends. This is fine, as the library should be a welcoming place and refuge for all. But why cut staff, services and quiet reading rooms for the specialized researchers? In the past NYPL was regarded as one of the greatest public library systems in the world, because it opened to a vast public not only great circulating collections but also world-renowned research collections. Many well-known writers, professors and scientists who couldn’t afford to go to college educated themselves by exploring the enormous richness and diversity of these collections.

Consultants hired by NYPL noted that the stats for people coming into the circulating branch libraries were higher than those for the research centers. Librarians tried to explain that there is a qualitative difference between services offered to specialized researchers and to the general public. Researchers need to spend more time with the librarians, explaining their projects and having the librarians plumb the depths of the research collections to find rare, unusual materials to enhance their projects.

So it seems that the goal of NYPL is to no longer be known, internationally or domestically, as a major research library but as a New York community library. As the staff, collections and reading rooms of the research collections continue to be downsized, people desiring more specialized research services will have to seek them elsewhere, such as at universities. Researchers accustomed to the superb reference services at NYPL now receive, in some cases, perfunctory assistance, and are forced to find other resources for their research.

I agree with Sherman that NYPL should not be secretly making such massive changes without some dialogue with the communities it serves.




Ypsilanti, Mich.

Scott Sherman raises some good questions about the “closely guarded” NYPL Central Library Plan, and, unusually, he seems to have actually talked with NYPL librarians. As the author of a biography of a distinguished woman librarian who, after a public dispute with NYPL management, was summarily fired in 1918, denied a hearing and secretly reported to the government as a subversive, I was saddened but not surprised that today’s librarians demanded anonymity for fear of retribution. The more things change…

How absurd that a plan to completely change the interior and apparently the purpose of a major public building should be kept secret and the librarians not allowed to discuss it. It may be that the superrich VIPs on the board will always go for fantasies of having a big-name architect design a flashy “state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library,” but what does that really mean? Is it just another version of the microform mania once pushed as state-of-the-art, high-tech, etc.? What needs will it meet? Who will use it? Is such an elaborate remodeling really the best use of hundreds of millions of dollars?

NYPL has a uniquely complex history and structure, with the central building developed from the privately funded Astor and Lenox libraries. At a time when academic research libraries were just beginning to develop, it was intended to be a sophisticated information resource for an intellectual elite. Not a social or financial elite, an intellectual elite of those doing serious, in-depth reading and research. The branch libraries were to serve the educational and recreational reading needs of the general public.

John Shaw Billings’s plan for the building made the stacks central to the library’s mission, with the many reading rooms surrounding the core. That concept soon proved to be expensive and complicated to operate, and within a few years of Billings’s death in 1913 the administration had begun consolidating and closing the specialized divisions.

If Anthony Marx complains that “exquisite rooms” are used for storage, he probably refers to the closed reading rooms, but what use will the plan make of them? Blather about replacing “books with people” as “the future of where libraries are going” does not clarify the mysterious plan and sounds potentially anti-intellectual. Assurances of prompt delivery from offsite ignore the fact that the research library has quite limited hours, which will add to the delays. The Central Library Plan needs rigorous public examination. Thanks to Scott Sherman and The Nation for calling attention to it.


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