The Chronicle Review

The New York Public Library Wars

What went wrong at one of the world’s eminent research institutions?


The Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library’s main branch, on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. A group of scholars spearheaded a successful protest to stop radical changes at the library, but now it looks as if they may have lost anyway.
June 24, 2015

Scholars who use the New York Public Library are boiling with frustration. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2014 the library, under pressure from a coalition that included four senior scholars, abandoned its controversial Central Library Plan, which entailed gutting the stacks at the 42nd Street Library and selling the popular Mid-Manhattan Library across the street. But the situation hasn’t turned out how many critics had hoped.

Paula Glatzer, an independent Shakespeare scholar, has been engaged in research at the library since 1963 and has recently used the collections for her contribution to the new Variorum Shakespeare editions, published by the Modern Language Association. On January 15 she sent a letter to Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president: "Sadly, I have had to tell my Variorum colleagues that the NYPL is over … for now." Many books are stored off-site, some mislabeled as on-site; others have been lost or discarded, she wrote. "I requested a series. It couldn’t be found. I said it was hard to lose 21 volumes. A librarian overheard me and offered to look. He later emailed. All 21 volumes were indeed missing."

What stands revealed is a library that is abandoning its core mission of research.

What went wrong at one of the world’s eminent research libraries? NYPL, as it is often known, has been under intermittent financial pressure for most of its history, but in the last few years it has been enveloped by a controversy that has exposed the institution to unprecedented public scrutiny. What stands revealed is a library that is abandoning its core mission of research and is losing its way in the digital age.

The Central Library Plan was a quixotic scheme, born in 2007, to sell three libraries in central Manhattan and consolidate services in the main branch, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. That building would undergo a radical transformation by the British architect Norman Foster, who called it "the greatest project ever." It wasn’t until 2011, when I first reported on the plans in The Nation, that scholars realized the project’s full scope and radical nature. Foster’s renovation called for the creation of new rooms for children and teenagers, more computer work stations, and the demolition of seven levels of historic book stacks — containing 98,000 adjustable shelves and built by Carrère & Hastings in the first decade of the 20th century. The three million books in the stacks were to be sent to an off-site storage facility near Princeton, N.J. Library officials insisted that the plan would cost $300 million and was essential to the institution’s fiscal health.

Three factors gave rise to the central plan: The library was under severe financial pressure, the value of real estate in Manhattan was soaring, and the Board of Trustees was controlled by business leaders at the highest echelons of Manhattan real estate and finance, who believed that the market could ameliorate the complex, longstanding troubles. In 2005 the trustees sold the library’s most precious painting, Asher B. Durand’s "Kindred Spirits," for a reported $35 million. Critics howled.

By 2007 there were no more valuable paintings left to sell, so the trustees, with the backing of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, decided to put the library’s own real estate on the market. The high-wire plan that emerged was a mystifying combination of consolidation and devil-may-care overreach. Foster demanded $9 million for his fee, a huge expenditure for a sprawling urban library system that has difficulty keeping toilet paper, soap, and hand towels in the restrooms of its 88 branches.

A transformation of the library’s internal culture made a radical plan possible. A democratic thread runs through NYPL’s history. In the 1890s the 42nd Street Library was designed in a strikingly transparent way: The architectural plans for the new building were given to local newspapers, which sparked an animated public discussion. Similarly, senior librarians and curators always had a voice in decision making.

That began to change under the leadership of Paul LeClerc, a French-literature scholar who headed the City University of New York’s Hunter College and became NYPL’s president in 1993. Staff members gradually found themselves excluded from high-level strategic discussions; consultants from McKinsey & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton filled the void. In June 2007 the central plan was ratified by the trustees behind closed doors. The trustee meeting’s minutes, which I obtained under the Open Meetings Law in 2013, show that the board chairman, Catherine C. Marron, who has given some $25 million to NYPL, "reminded all in attendance of the importance of maintaining confidentiality." Staff members learned of the plan four months later.

A veteran NYPL librarian told me in 2012: "We were made to feel old and against change. A few trustees did call for open discussion at the start, but they were greatly outnumbered. The mission was to stifle discussion and get this thing done before anyone could stop them."

The central plan was derailed by the recession of 2008, but was quietly being revived by 2011. In early 2012, Joan Wallach Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, was shaken by what I had reported. My article, she recalled in 2014, "was an invitation to act" in defense of an institution "that matters to me more than almost anything else."

In the 1950s the library had helped to ignite Scott’s interest in French history; she would spend her vacations from college at the 42nd Street building, where staff members would allow her to read newspapers that appeared in Paris during the Revolution of 1848. Some were in fair condition; others turned to dust in her hands. She still remembers "the sheer excitement of touching real paper from ages gone by." Scott went on to become a leader in her field and in feminist scholarship.

She told me that in 2012 she found herself "feeling angrier and angrier about — I don’t know what to call it — neoliberal capitalism and feeling powerless to affect it." For decades her activism — building women’s-studies departments, defending academic freedom — had been confined to the university. But as she learned more about the New York Public Library plan, she found herself ready — and eager — to venture off campus.

Scott phoned an old friend, Stanley N. Katz, who was down the road at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. In the realm of higher education, Katz wears many hats (though he prefers elegant bow ties): elder statesman, power broker, commentator, activist, maverick. A member of Harvard’s Class of 1955 and an ardent old-school liberal, he has numerous friends in the highest echelons of journalism, philanthropy, and politics, and he maintains a punishing schedule that would challenge a person half his age.

Katz is not only an esteemed legal historian but also an expert on the nonprofit sector, and he was curious about NYPL’s trajectory after LeClerc’s departure. Indeed, Katz had known the library’s new president, Tony Marx, who took over in 2011, when the latter was a graduate student at Princeton and had extolled Marx’s accomplishments as president of Amherst College, from 2003 to 2011.

Like Scott, Katz had an emotional attachment to the library at 42nd Street. As a graduate student and young professor, he had relied on its resources — especially the old American History Room, which was abruptly shuttered in 1980 over the objections of scholars like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who complained about a "rather mysterious" decision-making process at NYPL. The loss of that intimate room, with its open shelving and camaraderie, is still keenly felt by Katz: "It was a refuge, a haven, an incredible resource," he says. "I could be sure that every reference work that existed was there and available."

Scott and Katz decided to write a protest letter: "We are alarmed by the Central Library Plan, which seems to us to be a misplaced use of funds in a time of great scarcity," they said. Scott didn’t know how to create an online petition, so the letter was dispatched from her personal email account.

Uncertainty hangs over the New York Public Library, and discussion about its fate must continue.

A few dozen scholars, she hoped, would sign it. Indeed, the first people to respond were old friends and former students. A week later, the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who had researched several of his novels in the Rose Reading Room at 42nd Street, emailed her from Peru and asked that his name be added. Soon there was another email: "Please add my name to your good letter. Many thanks, Salman Rushdie." Tom Stoppard signed, as did other major writers, including Donna Tartt, Colm Tóibín, Jonathan Lethem, Peter Carey, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Ann Patchett, and Amitav Ghosh. Leading historians also joined the protest: Anthony T. Grafton, Jackson Lears, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Ramachandra Guha.

Scott was waking up each morning to hundreds of messages. The protest letter would ultimately generate about 2,000 signatures. The petition was soon covered by the Times. A campaign was born.

For the next two years, Scott and Katz worked closely with a small but indefatigable group of grass-roots activists and historical preservationists in New York City that eventually became the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, led by the architect and writer Charles Warren.

Katz knew NYPL’s leaders and in the early days of the controversy urged them to change course. In May 2012 he had lunch in Philadelphia with the board chairman, Neil L. Rudenstine, a former president of Harvard University, who had replaced Marron. Katz and Rudenstine had a warm friendship in the 1950s, when they were both graduate students at Harvard and shared a passion for England in the 16th and 17th centuries. But in 2012 they found themselves on opposing sides. During their lunch, Rudenstine insisted that the central plan was the only way forward for the library.

When the controversy became news, in the spring of 2012, Marx emailed Katz and Scott. "I clearly need more advice," he wrote, "on how to decide and adjust plans going forward." They met in Marx’s office. It was not a productive session, but Scott and Katz did convince the library’s president that it should participate in a debate about the central plan, organized by the online magazine n+1 at the New School. Library officials had initially declined, but thanks to Katz and Scott’s prodding, Marx and Robert Darnton agreed to the invitation. Darnton, a longtime NYPL trustee, then director of the Harvard University Library, had just published a defense of the central plan in The New York Review of Books.

David Nasaw had been using NYPL for decades and knew that it was the principal research library for faculty members and graduate students at CUNY, where he is a professor of history. Nasaw had written a celebrated biography of Andrew Carnegie, who paid for the construction of 30 NYPL branch libraries in the first decade of the 20th century, and it was his remarks on the panel that would be featured in an account of the debate in the next day’s news media.

"We are being told," Nasaw said, "that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards and transport millions of books to New Jersey." He dismissed Marx’s pledge of 24-hour delivery of books from the off-site storage facility: "If for the past 10 years the library has not been able to provide reliable 24-hour service, why are we to believe that with additional books moved there it will be able to do this? Is the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike going to decrease?"

Nasaw was unsparing: "I’m enough of a New Yorker to understand how the city works, and how decisions are made, and what sort of voices speak loudest when large-scale, multimillion-dollar projects like this are formulated behind closed doors." He went on:

I’m not talking about Tony Marx or Bob Darnton, who were given this plan. But I would not be shocked to learn that among the voices that were heard loudest were the city’s real-estate interests, deputy mayors, offices of the New York State Economic Development Corporation; politicians who will be running for office and politicians who want to leave behind legacies; architects who seek out large-scale campuses for their work, engineers who believe they can do the impossible, planners and number crunchers and traffic consultants and hedge-fund managers and wealthy New Yorkers who want their names on buildings … and some donors, who, motivated by a 21st-century social Darwinism, believe that having made money or being born with it renders them more fit than the rest of us to make decisions about the urban landscape.

By mid-2012 critics had formulated a list of demands: Preserve and renovate the 42nd Street stacks; cancel Foster’s $300-million renovation and use the money to rebuild the library’s decimated staff of librarians, curators, and archivists; and retain and renovate the decrepit but highly popular Mid-Manhattan Library, on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, which occupied prime real estate and whose sale was a cornerstone of the central plan.

But Marx continued to insist that the stacks had an outdated climate-control system, jeopardizing three million "rotting" books. A new system, he said, would be too expensive to install. Demolition of the stacks was the only option. And so he ordered the removal of three million books from the interior of the 42nd Street Library. The public was never told of the decision. By the spring of 2013, the vast heart of the building was empty, and the space emitted a dank stench — the climate-control system was turned off after the last book was sent away to off-site storage.

Staff members reported to me that many books and photographs were damaged when the stacks were emptied. The NYPL spokesman Ken Weine denied those allegations to me.

Another New York-based historian was also livid about what was happening. David Levering Lewis, born in 1936, is grave, formal, carefully spoken, and thoroughly old-fashioned. He’s an enormously productive New York University scholar who has written books about the Dreyfus Affair, Harlem, Martin Luther King Jr., and African resistance to European imperialism. For Parts 1 and 2 of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, he was awarded Pulitzer Prizes. By and large, his books were researched and written in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, both of which Lewis cherished.

Lewis and Marx knew each other. Prior to the controversy, their relationship, says Lewis, was "distantly congenial" and "mutually admiring." Indeed, Marx’s 2003 book Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism had sparked an intuition that helped Lewis conceptualize his own 2008 God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215. When it was published, Lewis sent Marx an inscribed copy; Marx responded from Amherst with a cordial, handwritten letter.

In my 2011 Nation story, I quoted Lewis’s views about the removal of millions of books from the stacks at 42nd Street: "We would need to review that very carefully, and perhaps resist it." A few hours after Marx read those words, he emailed Lewis: "Hi David. Hope this finds you well. Meanwhile, we are enjoying beautiful bookshelves at home built by the person you suggested … I was wondering if we might get together at some point to catch up and to talk about the future of the Library (including this building — I heard you!)." But for Lewis, the 42nd Street renovation was a "cultural atrocity." He tartly replied: "Maybe we should confer with Sir Norman about bookshelves."

They soon met for breakfast at the Metro Diner, on 100th Street. Marx told Lewis, as he had recently told others, that the 42nd Street Library was intimidating to much of the public (especially younger people and new immigrants) and had to be transformed and modernized. He then spoke feelingly of his boyhood in the NYPL branch libraries, and his desire to invigorate those facilities, which needed $500 million in renovations. Lewis asked where the money for the branches would come from, if $300 million was about to be spent on an extravagant architectural project at one facility on 42nd Street. "I will raise the money, I can do it," Lewis recalls Marx said. "You are deceiving yourself," Lewis replied.

They stayed in touch. In May 2013, Lewis complained to Marx in an email that scholarly services would erode under the central plan and likened Foster’s design to a suburban mall. Marx riposted: "I really object to the notion of a great circulating library as a mall. That seems rather elitist to me."

Lewis was finished with email; it was time to find a lawyer. Scott, Katz, Nasaw, the historians Edmund Morris and Blanche Wiesen Cook, and several others were about to file a lawsuit in New York state court. But Lewis and several friends wanted their own lawsuit. So in July 2013, there were two well-publicized filings. Katz was pessimistic about the chances in court. But a judge issued a temporary restraining order that read: "NYPL shall not undertake and/or continue any construction work … relating to the seven stories of iron and steel book stacks …."

The ruling was a devastating blow to Marx and library trustees, who were ferociously determined to break ground on the renovation while Bloomberg was still in office, because — as Marx had admitted at the New School debate — the next mayor would have the authority to redirect the $150 million in city capital funds allocated to the project. The judge’s decision emboldened the critics and gave them time to organize. The election of Bill de Blasio as New York City’s mayor, in November 2013, created further headaches for the library, as de Blasio had opposed the central plan when he was campaigning for mayor. A third lawsuit was filed by critics who alleged that the Bloomberg administration had mishandled the environmental-impact assessment for the renovation.

The New York Public Library abandoned the plan on May 7, 2014. The "greatest project ever" never came to fruition. Weeks later, library officials acknowledged that the Foster renovation would have cost $500 million, not $300 million, and that $18 million had already been spent on it. (The actual losses are probably much higher.)

But the finale proved bittersweet for the critics: Marx announced that the stacks would remain empty. "Stacks without books?" Lewis asked in The Wall Street Journal. "Isn’t that pretty Kafkaesque?" A few days later, Katz wrote to me: "The empty stacks are the lasting image of the controversy … ‘take that, wise guys’ is what I fear they are saying to us."

Staff members tell me that the trustees are fully devoted to the library’s special collections — the manuscripts by Beethoven, Joyce, and Whitman, the rare photographs of Jorge Luis Borges, and Virginia Woolf’s cane, to name just a few items — but are ambivalent about scholarly research. That fact is plain to see: NYPL intends to sell its Science, Industry, and Business Library, on 34th Street and Madison Avenue; the performing-arts library at Lincoln Center has seen the departure of most of its skilled staff of librarians and curators, and the facility itself has eroded, prompting Edmund Morris to call it a "dump." The staff of librarians, archivists, and curators at 42nd Street has been cut to the bone.

Marx has articulated a populist vision for NYPL. He told me in July 2011, months before the controversy erupted: "In the back quarter of this iconic building are stacks of books that are rarely used. We can store and get access to those books without having to take the prime space in a prime location of New York City. To the degree that we can make that space available, and replace books with people, that’s the future of where libraries are going." In 2014, while reporting my book on the NYPL wars, I requested an interview with Marx; he declined.

The role of research has yet to be clearly defined. In 2011 a librarian told me about the experience of a researcher who had come to 42nd Street for scholarly reference books. The books, it turned out, were in the Princeton storage facility. "She didn’t want to go to the trouble to call the whole set from off-site, and to renew it every week, and this and that." Columbia University’s library had those books on the shelf, so she went there. "I think her experience counts for exactly zero with the current library administration," the librarian said. "That is not the kind of reader they want."

Uncertainty hangs over the New York Public Library, and discussion about its fate must continue. But one thing is clear: A quartet of historians, allied with grass-roots activists, played a very significant role in halting a $500-million construction project in the heart of Manhattan, saving the Mid-Manhattan Library, used by 1.5 million people a year, and preserving the architectural integrity of what is perhaps New York City’s finest building.

Scott Sherman is a contributing writer to The Nation and the author of Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, just published by Melville House.