I think the first time I wrote about the New York Public Library here at LH was in 2003. Since then I have had many occasions to mention it, reflecting the many visits I made to it in my twenty-three years in the city; the main research library and the Donnell and Mid-Manhattan branches were homes away from home, especially the Donnell with its peerless foreign-language collection (now gone; I wrote about it here and here) and the Slavic and Baltic division with its amazing holdings—I wrote in 2007 about reading Sovremennye zapiski there, “gingerly turning the pages of those beautiful heavy cream-colored issues of the journal” in which Nabokov published his Russian-language works before emigrating to America.
But if you click on the Slavic and Baltic Division link there, you’ll get a 404 (“We’re sorry… The page you requested is unavailable”); that’s not because they’re redoing their website, it’s because they’ve closed down the division, along with the Asian and Middle Eastern division next door to it. I learn this from a long and rage-inducing article by Scott Sherman in The Nation; I’ll quote some snippets below, but I urge you to read the whole thing:
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.)
. . .
The centerpiece of the CLP—expected to cost anywhere from $250 million to $350 million—is the construction of a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by British architect Norman Foster, in the vast interior of the Schwarzman Building. To make space for this library within the library, the seven levels of original stacks beneath the third-floor Rose Reading Room—stacks that hold 3 million books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves—will be demolished (the exterior of the building is landmarked; the stacks are not). When the new library is completed, patrons will be able to leave the building with borrowed books and other materials; for decades, those materials had to be used inside the library.
. . .
In September 2008 the NYPL dissolved two specialist divisions at Forty-second Street: the Slavic and Baltic division and the Asian and Middle Eastern division. Three of the divisions’ old-fashioned reading rooms were also shut down. The closing of the Slavic and Asian and Middle Eastern divisions surprised their devoted users, many of them scholars. The scholars I talked with lamented the covert way the decision was made. Some NYPL staff are sympathetic. Says one, “It was a stealth closure, a fait accompli. It was done in a way to prevent protests.” The reading rooms are closed to the public, but a few hints of the past remain. On a bookshelf in front of the old Slavic Reading Room are several dozen bulky maroon volumes that constitute the NYPL’s dictionary catalog of the Slavonic collection; mounted on a nearby wall are two charts of the Cyrillic transliteration system.
Questions remain about access to those collections. Since 2008 users of the Slavic collection have lamented the absence of a distinguished full-time curator, as well as full-time staff, to guarantee the safety and accessibility of Slavic materials. Not long ago, a scholar was invited into the closed stacks at Schwarzman to retrieve a book. (“We can’t read Cyrillic,” a librarian explained.) As Hoogenboom wrote in her letter to LeClerc: “Despite cutbacks in library staff at other foremost Slavic collections in the U.S., every Slavic collection of any standing in this country has a curator and several librarians.”
. . .
Storage and book delivery are paramount issues for library staff, some of whom maintain that the Schwarzman Building has become less attractive to scholars, researchers and serious readers. One can and does strike gold at the NYPL; still, a downward trend is evident. One employee says, “I know many people who do not come to Forty-second Street anymore because they cannot get the books they need to work there.” Top NYPL administrators bristle at those words, but the statistics show that a large gap has opened up between NYPL and other top research libraries. In 2008, according to data from the Association of Research Libraries, the four research libraries of the NYPL spent $15.2 million on “library materials expenditures.” In 2010 the NYPL spent $10.8 million. By contrast, in that year Harvard spent $32.3 million; Columbia, $26.4 million; and Princeton, $23.1 million. …
One staff member told me about the recent experience of a researcher who came to the Schwarzman Building 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,” the staffer explained. Columbia’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 staff member told me. “That’s not the kind of reader they want—this woman probably doesn’t even know how to tweet.”
I remember those “lavish dinners and events” Vartan Gregorian put on when he was running the place in the ’80s; they pissed me off, but I knew they were necessary—the library desperately needed money for restoring its decrepit building. Now the building is in fine shape, but the people running it think it’s worth taking the risk of damaging it in order to further their grandiose schemes of taking the library into a hazily imagined future. It reminds me irresistibly of the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs of 1929 and its starry-eyed successors, including David Rockefeller’s 1958 plan “to eliminate the port, the produce markets, and all local industry” (I quote from Robert Fitch‘s impassioned analysis, The Assassination of New York, which I recommend to anyone interested in the fate of the city): “New York designed a strategy for economic transformation. The strategy worked. What doesn’t work is the new economic structure the strategy succeeded in implementing.” It reminds me of more recent things too, things that are much in the news, but this isn’t a news site and I don’t want to get into politics, so I’ll just say that a rich guy’s name being “carved into the facade at Forty-second Street in five prominent places,” while trivial in itself, is symbolic of much that isn’t.