In July 2010, Hilde Hoogenboom, a professor of Russian literature at Arizona State University, sent an impassioned missive to Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, to protest the closure of the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic division. It “was one of the best places to work in the world,” she wrote. Indeed, in the universe of Russian studies, the Slavic division was legendary. “I recall [it] as an agreeably dim sort of place, with a faintly reverential, almost cathedral-like ambience,” George Kennan said in 1987. Among its 750,000 items are the first book printed in Moscow, the “Anonymous” Gospels; a first edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and John Reed’s collection of broadsides and posters from the Russian Revolution. Trotsky and Nabokov toiled in the division’s reading room. Václav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev made visits of tribute.
Eleven weeks later, a senior NYPL official replied on LeClerc’s behalf: “If I may put this matter into its sadly grim financial context, in the last two fiscal years our budget has been reduced by $20 million and our workforce by 300 positions. While we recognized and prized the special cultural and scholarly resource that was the Slavic Reading Room, we simply could no longer afford to operate it.”
The New York Public Library, which comprises four research libraries and eighty-seven branch libraries, has seen other cutbacks as well. Since 2008 its workforce has been reduced by 27 percent. In a recent newsletter to library supporters, the institution reported that its acquisitions budget for books, CDs and DVDs had been slashed by 26 percent.
Despite these austerity measures, NYPL executives are pushing ahead with a gargantuan renovation of the Forty-second Street library, the crown jewel of the system. The details of the Central Library Plan (CLP) are closely guarded, but it has already sparked criticism among staff members, who worry that the makeover would not only weaken one of the world’s great libraries but mar the architectural integrity of the landmark building on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008, following the Wall Street billionaire’s gift of $100 million. (Every staff member I spoke with demanded anonymity; a number of them talked openly about their fear of retribution from management.)
These are arduous times for public library systems. More people are using libraries during the economic downturn, but state and local legislators are steadily cutting their budgets. The American Library Association notes that since 2008, “more than half the states have reported a decrease in funding, with cumulative cuts averaging greater than ten percent.” Library systems of all sizes are under pressure. The Los Angeles County public library system, which serves 3.7 million citizens, faces a structural deficit of $22 million a year for the next decade. Budget cuts have forced the Seattle Public Library, one of the nation’s finest, to shut down for a week in late summer. Thomas Galante, CEO of the bustling Queens Library, which serves hundreds of thousands of immigrants in New York City, spoke reverently about one healthy and outstanding public library—in Toronto.
The man who must contend with the NYPL’s budget difficulties is its new president, a tall, amiable, casually dressed political scientist named Anthony Marx, who started at the library on July 1. Marx had been the president of Amherst College, where during his eight-year tenure he raised great sums of money and did much to diversify the student body. But obtaining the financial resources to sustain the NYPL in these lean and mean times is a task that’s sure to keep Marx tossing in his bed at night. (Personal reasons may also keep Marx from sleeping soundly: on the afternoon of November 6 he was arrested in Upper Manhattan for driving while intoxicated; his blood alcohol level was 0.19. He is scheduled to appear in court on December 9.) He faces an additional challenge with the CLP, devised by his predecessor and scheduled to be completed in 2015.