How to (Almost) Ruin a Great Library
Public libraries have lately shifted their mission from culture to social services. The NY Public Library’s main branch was almost a casualty of this trend.
When standing in front of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, what one beholds is, in essence, a massive steel cage shrouded in marble and extensive Beaux-Arts stylings. The building’s core is “the stacks”: seven floors and 88 miles of book shelves that, until recently, held most of the library’s research collection.
Lately a proposal to remove the stacks—a marvel of engineering to some, an expendable relic to others—fueled one of the most spirited debates on New York’s cultural scene in recent years. The Nation contributing writer Scott Sherman recounts the drama in his new book Patience and Fortitude.
To see why so much hell was raised over the so-called “Central Library Plan,” it’s first necessary to understand the unique nature and history of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The NYPL operates dozens of branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island (Queens and Brooklyn have their own systems) but it also ranks among the world’s great research institutions.
Its holdings are larger than any other local library system in America and also different. Millions of books and a priceless archival collection do not circulate but may be consulted by anyone with a library card at 42nd Street or one of the three other research facilities.
Novelist Caleb Crain describes the library’s animating ideal as “the belief that anyone should be able to walk in off the street and find out as much about a topic as has ever been published.”
This commitment to provide “anyone” with a university-quality research library attests to the ambitiousness of the NYPL’s founders. It also turned out to be backbreakingly expensive. Sherman writes that “the research division … has been in fiscal distress almost from the beginning; the branch libraries, too, have been underfunded for much of their history.”
Sherman provides a brisk yet effective overview of the NYPL’s 104-year history, indeed, probably one of the best we have. (Though strong treatments exist of its founding and first decades, the NYPL still lacks a comprehensive history). The library’s bleakest era coincided with that of the city. In late 1976, “delinquents” took over one South Bronx branch and went on a two-day rampage. “[R]ecordings of speeches by Coretta Scott King” were not spared. Mayhem was also visited on 42nd Street, where in 1979, a mental patient repeatedly stabbed a patron in the head and neck. Staff and hours were drastically reduced: for a time, half of all branches opened only two days a week.
Those days now seem as distant as quadruple-digit annual murder rates, subway graffiti, and Times Square peep shows. But New York City’s recent renaissance decades served more to gloss over what Sherman calls the library’s “exceedingly fragile economic foundation” than to provide long-term budgetary stability.
Acting in part on the advice of outside management consultants, library leadership began to “monetize[e] non-core assets” during the early 2000s. A series of private art sales yielded $53 million, which the library claims to have devoted exclusively to research acquisitions. These deals were highly controversial, particularly the sale of “Kindred Spirits,” an admired 1849 painting that featured William Cullen Bryant, the namesake of the public park behind the 42nd Street building.
Then came the Central Library Plan. The idea was to gut the stacks and create a massive new circulating library inside 42nd Street (officially renamed the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Building” after the financier’s 2008 gift of $100 million.) The millions of books formerly housed in the stacks were transferred to an offsite location in New Jersey from which patrons must request them in advance. Internationally renowned architect Norman Foster signed on to do the renovation, and financing was proposed to be secured through selling off two library buildings in midtown, the mid-Manhattan branch and the Science Industry and Business Library, and funds from city government.
Though many alleged that crooked dealings lurked somewhere behind the plan to sell off library real estate, Sherman’s reporting found that “[p]ersonal enrichment was certainly not the trustees’ intention; they were sincere in their desire to assist the Library.” Throughout his years of covering the Central Library Plan debate, Sherman’s real concern was, why this plan in particular? Why did the stacks have to go to save the NYPL?
The library’s official line tended to go something like the quote from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” What they were contemplating, officials said, was neither an abandonment of the commitment to research, or a risky all-in bet on what it means to be “21st century library,” but rather a way to deliver basically the same kind of services in a different but nonetheless satisfactory and certainly more efficient manner.
But the more explaining they did, the less clear which problem the Central Library Plan was designed to solve. Sometimes, it was said to be all about saving the books, because storage conditions in New Jersey were superior to what could be attained onsite. At other times, library officials characterized the Central Library Plan as “replac[ing] books with people.” One favored rhetorical gambit was to cast the debate in class warfare terms, and accuse the Central Library Plan critics of elitism. Gutting the stacks was necessary to “democratize” a building one-third of which was inaccessible to the public. But wouldn’t a real populist have devoted $300 million to the outerborough branches instead of 42nd Street?
The opposition was small but relatively diverse. The New York Post and New Criterion ran critical articles while Sherman’s work was published in The Nation. Many literary luminaries signed on to a petition to save the stacks, including Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Despite a hasty, late-stage attempt to gin up union support, the NYPL never found many advocates for the Central Library Plan beyond its own board and upper-level management.
The library was forced to formally scrap the Central Library Plan in spring 2014 when an independent audit revealed that the full bill would have been in excess of $500 million, up from the original $300 million.
In addition to their research function, the stacks physically hold up the massive Rose Reading Room on the third floor, which library officials pledged to keep open during the renovation. A project manager for the library likened the task to “cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served”; my colleague Nicole Gelinas was more dubious: “The Library…is embarking on a Big Dig beneath midtown.”
At the time, Foster brushed off the naysayers, telling The New York Times that he envisioned “no inherent risk in cost overruns.” But anyone passingly familiar with mega projects in New York knows that escalating price tags and elastic completion schedules are de rigeur. To take an extreme example, the MTA’s East Side Access project is now running a full decade behind schedule and the cost is $10.2 billion, up from an original $3 billion. To be sure, drilling an underground tunnel is far more complex than gutting the stacks would have been, but the library’s margin of error was much thinner than the MTA’s is. Having to dip into its own funds to address a $200 million overrun would have meant a devastating 20 percent hit to the Library’s endowment.
Though the stacks remain emptied of books to this day, the Central Library Plan’s demise could be interpreted as a victory for small-d democracy in that the public got what it wanted. But Sherman’s book may be yet more instructive with respect to what it has to teach about the wisdom of small-c conservativism for cultural institutions and libraries in particular.
Sherman begins with the line, “This is a book about a world-class library that lost its way in the digital age.”
Public libraries don’t often make headlines but when they do, news coverage nearly always focuses on questions about libraries’ relevance or direction when faced with recent developments such e-books and the Internet. Usage levels remain high, but that’s partly because of the array of new functions libraries have assumed, such as computer access, job search assistance, and other social service programming.
As for the traditional purpose of cultural enrichment, librarians themselves often seem almost apologetic over the presence of books. As is obvious to anyone who shops for used books online, a large percentage of which are deaccessioned former public library copies, librarians across the nation have been aggressively jettisoning rarely-requested old titles. Sherman identifies the board and management as the driving forces behind the NYPL’s mission drift, but, nationwide, librarians themselves are at least as responsible for libraries’ ongoing transformation.
Whoever’s behind it, the ascendant “21st century library” movement is doubly misguided: the motivation is too often nothing more than a play for more public funding and it’s not clear libraries are good at social services. Public libraries face powerful temptations to embrace fads and go where the money is. But sometimes, the real heroes are those with the patience and fortitude simply to muddle through.
Stephen Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.