The New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP)—under which $350 million would be spent on a colossal renovation of the 42nd Street facility—is becoming increasingly controversial (for the full backstory, see my article “Upheaval at the New York Public Library” from the December 19, 2011 issue). Writing in Inside Higher Ed on March 28, Scott McLemee, in an essay headlined “Stop Cultural Vandalism,” noted: “The Central Library Plan is a case of long-term planning at its most shortsighted. It will affect scholars and writers in both the United States and abroad, and will have a particular impact on some fields of study in which the library has especially important collections, such as Russian literature.” Like many observers, McLemee is enraged by the NYPL’s proposal to remove 3 million books from seven levels of century-old stacks beneath the magisterial Rose Reading Room, and he demanded to know why “a collection of three million volumes gathered over more than a century is being treated as a distraction, rather than as the institution’s entire claim to cultural significance.”
Opposition to the CLP has been spearheaded by Joan Wallach Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study. In a protest letter to NYPL President Anthony Marx, Scott noted the downsizing of the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic Division; the deterioration of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem; and the weakening of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (at Lincoln Center Plaza), which has seen a significant reduction in specialty librarians who, for decades, catered to students and scholars of dance, music, recorded sound and theater. Scott also took aim at NYPL’s argument that “democratization” of the 42nd street library is a necessary goal under the CLP. “That seems to be a misunderstanding of what that word means,” Scott wrote. “The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind.” As of April 18, Scott’s letter, which is still circulating, has garnered nearly two hundred signatures, including those of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Concern about the NYPL’s future has also come from the distinguished Princeton historian (and library expert) Anthony Grafton, who wrote in the Daily Princetonian on April 2: “My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks.” (In addition to Grafton, several other professors and writers have recently been asked by the NYPL to serve on an advisory panel; they include David Nasaw, Andre Aciman and Annette Gordon-Reed.)
In response to the criticism, the NYPL has initiated a media outreach campaign: in recent days Marx has been interviewed by Leonard Lopate and Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio, as well as Robin Pogrebin and Sam Roberts of the New York Times; he has published essays in the Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed; and he is currently taking online questions from readers of the Times. Many of those readers—along with citizens who have written to Marx privately—have lamented the NYPL’s culture of secrecy and are demanding transparency with regard to the CLP. One reader, Nadav Samin, wrote: “In light of the mixed public reactions to the CLP, is NYPL’s leadership planning to hold a town hall meeting to discuss this plan with New York City residents and other interested parties?… A town hall meeting would be useful for articulating NYPL’s vision for the future of its flagship branches, and would allow concerned citizens to have a voice in the reshaping of this prized public institution.”