The New York Public Library Must Be Saved From Itself

Guarded by two beloved lions familiar to generations of readers since it opened, the New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue at 42nd Street, is the second-largest public library in America, after the Library of Congress. Ever since the doors first opened, 102 years ago, the grand marble palace of learning has served all who come, rich and poor, immigrant and native, without charge. The venerable institution would have seemed in need of no more than upgraded maintenance, paired with prudent planning, to maintain its leading place in 21st-century research service.

Instead, the largely self-elected trustees of the NYPL unveiled in the spring of 2012 their $300-million Central Library Plan (CLP), mandating a radical reconfiguration of the interior of the central building and the installation within of a circulating library. Library officials argued that it must reimagine itself as a “People’s Palace,” wherein spaces occupied by books and underutilized rooms give way to a forum for social interactivity and spaces for digital reading and retrieval. The trustees, one critic responded, were “hopelessly confusing” populism with democracy.

Millions of books, the main business of a research library, would migrate off-site to climate-controlled storage facilities in New Jersey and Westchester County, N.Y., returnable to 42nd Street on demand of readers unsatisfied with available digital reproductions or with time enough to wait for the next day’s truck delivery.

The CLP’s rising price tag would be met by the sale and consolidation within 42nd Street of the system’s heavily used circulating library (the Mid-Manhattan Library) and its Science, Industry, and Business Library. If history serves, the primary beneficiaries of this prized midtown real estate will be private developers, as was the case in the sale of another NYPL branch, the beloved Donnell Library, for $60-million a few years ago. Today that land is the site of a skyscraper. In the case of the current sell-offs, the NYPL contends that it will gain $200-million and save $7-million to $15-million in annual operating costs.

On May 1, 2012, some 700 scholars, writers, researchers, and teachers affixed their names to an appeal addressed to the library system’s president, Anthony Marx. It was generally known that an internal report, prepared for the library by a powerhouse management-consulting firm, contended that a mere 6 percent of the NYPL’s books were used annually. The architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable responded that “a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts.” Alarmed by the threatened violation of a great research collection, the scholars and writers urged Marx to “take a hard look at the plan you’ve been given and revise it so that the splendid culture of research embodied by the NYPL can be maintained.

“Change is always necessary,” the distressed appellants conceded, “but not of the kind envisioned by the CLP.” They insisted that “the money raised can be better used to preserve and extend what already exists at 42nd Street.”

At that time, mutual understanding and compromise seemed possible. But since then, relations have steadily deteriorated. Now the two sides face each other in an impassioned standoff.

Marx and the library’s trustees have forfeited their credibility by serial upward revisions of the plan’s price tag. That $150-million in taxpayer money was hustled through the City Council exclusively for the Central Library Plan while the capital needs of the NYPL’s 90-odd branch libraries went undiscussed escaped the public’s attention initially, even though library usage today in the city’s five boroughs is higher than attendance at sports events .

As of today, New York’s great public research library stands virtually empty of books, its seven levels of recently refurbished steel stacks supporting the magisterial Rose Reading Room but just days away from removal, at a price publicly unrevealed and perhaps not yet precisely known even to Marx and the trustees. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one of the engineers hired to remove the stacks as likening his task to “cutting the legs off the table while a banquet is taking place.”

Until last month, the reality of the CLP debate went virtually unacknowledged in public. The hypothesis that, stripped to its essentials, the plan is a real-estate masquerade, has persuaded a growing number of critics. Valiant volunteers of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library and the Citizens Defending Libraries march with signs and song and stand in serried ranks on the steps of City Hall, 42nd Street, and numerous public buildings in one borough after another.

The larger meaning for the public, and for scholars in particular (they need books to write books), may now be more clearly understood as a chapter in the national trend of deleterious, market-based decision-making by public libraries and nonprofit institutions generally. From Seattle to Boston, via St. Louis and Detroit, the grand libraries of America face challenges to the very meaning and continuity of their existence. A close observer warns, “The relevance of these gloriously inflated book boxes is being questioned in an age that looks to the Internet for its intellectual resources.”

In the case of the NYPL, serious questions of fiduciary integrity and real-estate machinations obtain, especially in light of Marx’s stunning admission in a public hearing  this past week that the plan’s numerous deficiencies may require urgent revision and independent scrutiny before execution of any of its elements. Many, if not indeed most, critics of the plan see no reason to doubt that the destruction of the stacks is not still on the trustees’ agenda. Real-estate solutions prove attractive if not unavoidable at public institutions to which the public pays lip service but allows tax support to slip away.

Those issues can be rather easily exposed; the digital issues much less so. Because technology is changing rapidly, there is no way to predict what digitization will look like from year to year. Equipment and formats will evolve, requiring maintenance, updating, and replacement. Quite apart from the complex copyright problems years away from resolution, or the new costs demanded by digitization, there is the scary fact that digitized media are not permanent but will degrade within years. Notwithstanding the generational debate over text versus pixels, it remains unclear whether or not future learning and research will be better served by digital reading or with books.

Finally, there is the paradox that the digitizers are paid to digitize printed matter belonging to the very public institutions to which the same material will be resold  at unpredictable cost. The long-term harm irreparably locked in by short-term decisions to banish books to off-site storage facilities are the costly mistakes of the future.

Speaking of the NYPL, Ada Louise Huxtable rightly warned that we shouldn’t try to “update a masterpiece.” The struggle over the Central Library Plan will end soon, one way or the other. The significance of the outcome for the intellectual and cultural health of this country cannot be overstated.

David Levering Lewis, a university professor and professor of history at New York University, is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois. Both books were researched at the New York Public Library. 

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