RUINING A GREAT LIBRARY.

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.

Comments

  1. thank you — excellent (and depressing) article …

  2. As a 19, I almost never fail to be surprised and upset by what older more powerful people seem to want for the future. I grew up in San Francisco, and pretty much missed the older San Francisco Public Library that Nicholson Baker talked about. It’s still a great library and fulfills all my personal needs, but the way he talks about the old and rare books, a record of passing time unlike anything the net can yet offer, makes me vicariously nostalgic.
    And this may not be a political site, but you shouldn’t be afraid to ‘classify’. People know they can disagree here.

  3. I don’t understand: they are removing seven floors filled with books from the library to create an empty space?

  4. They’re going to put in computer terminals and spaces for people to mingle and chat and for all I know sip champagne. You know, the stuff people go to libraries for.

  5. ‘You’ve got mail!’

  6. without the happy ending.
    In England there are local campaigns against municipal-run public library closures, some are successful, some are not.
    Here in France local libraries are being turned into swanky médiathèques with computer terminals and large DVD/CD sections. Of the two nearest to me one does indeed have a coffee machine, no champagne yet.

  7. This is very bad news. It’s too bad that the NY public library is now being run like this, and only I’m glad that I’m not around to see it.
    Since they also saw fit to demolish the Donnell library on 53rd Street and have no clue about what should go in a library, I now urge the people of the United States to return Winnie The Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest to England! And in fact the next time anyone mentions the Elgin marbles I’m going to organise an architectural competition to build Pooh an enormous new (but old-looking) home back in Sussex, and when it’s finished I’ll sit Disney Pooh figures inside to wait for the return of the originals.

  8. Public libraries are a significant force in trying to bridge the digital divide.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    The NYPL’s website claims that on opening day in 1911 “One of the very first items called for was N. I. Grot’s Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (Ethical Ideas of Our Time), a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoi. The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book six minutes later!” I assume that’s a transcription from the Cyrillic. And of course the building has always had carved in stone the names of the rich dudes (e.g. Tilden/Astor/Lennox) who founded/funded it and its predecessors. Maybe they had a better class of rich person back then? Through the period in between 1911 and the Gregorian era I’m not sure to what extent the high-end research functions of the NYPL were being funded out of general tax revenues versus the benefactions of private donors.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Um, “Gregorian” as in Vartan not as in the new-fangled calendar adopted in New York circa 1752.

  11. rootlesscosmo says:

    @AJPCrown: no clue about what should go in a library
    Certainly applies to the SF Main Library’s building mentioned by Joe R. The shelving in the open stacks didn’t have a way to show which call numbers were located on a particular shelf; the library staff wound up making hand-lettered labels and putting them up with sticky tape. Two of three entrances are on a floor with no public services, just library offices, so you have to go down a flight to the main floor before getting on an elevator to the upper floors. And I can’t help wondering how many of the books Nicholson Baker mourned would have fit in the volume occupied by that damned atrium; it’s true the main staircase in the old building (now the Asian Art Museum) took up a lot of space, but why repeat that at the cost of culling the library collection?

  12. And of course the building has always had carved in stone the names of the rich dudes (e.g. Tilden/Astor/Lennox) who founded/funded it and its predecessors.
    True, and I don’t so much mind his name being carved in as its being given to the whole building. If I ever refer to the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Building,” just put me down like a dog.

  13. Wow, that’s too bad about the SF main library. I didn’t know it had moved from its City Hall location. In the 1970s when I was a member, they had some rather unusual books in their circulating collection.
    This business of calling things after people with money, why do they always have such long names? So called ‘John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur’ are still embedded in my memory from when I used to listen to NPR, twenty years ago.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hey, we got Winnie and his companions fair and square with the consent of the Ottoman governor of the vilayet encompassing Sussex. You don’t get a do-over just because you’ve become independent.

  15. rootlesscosmo says:

    @AJP: the main library is still on that plaza bounded by Hyde, Grove, Van Ness, and McAllister, with City Hall opposite and Brooks Auditorium on the south side; the site had been an open area. It’s in more or less the same civic-monumental style as the old library building–not beautiful, but consistent with its setting. The big mistakes, in my view, were the interior design and the cavalier treatment of the collection.

  16. As for the Slavic and Baltic Reading Room, why couldn’t they appeal to a Russian billionaire to put his long name on the Reading Room? It doesn’t sound like funding it takes is that much in comparison to what they are spending elsewhere.

  17. The NYPL is neither publicly managed nor publicly funded: it is a private library that is open to the public. New York City pays it to run a network of branch libraries with circulating collections in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island (there are entirely separate Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries, also private with taxpayer-funded branches). But the Main Library and the other research branches receive private funds only.
    As for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the founders wouldn’t want to be mixed up with any old Jack and Cathy of that name, now would they. Still less with Douglas MacArthur, see their FAQ. I’m only surprised he didn’t insist on making it John Donald MacArthur, given that he was one of the three richest Americans at the time of his death (1978), and as such totally unknown to the public.

  18. At least they didn’t knock down the old SFPL or turn it into lawyer’s offices. It works as a repository for Asian art. Although the building doesn’t look at all Asian, it’s still a nice building. The quotations about the value of books carved into the walls still make me a bit nostalgic for the old library though.
    I didn’t know that the NYPL is actually a private library. I suppose that means I can’t connect this to Bloomberg’s goons destroying the OWS library.
    Here we still have libraries but their hours keep shrinking. We have one newly completed branch library that’s just sitting empty because there is no money for books or staff. (I’d be willing to donate some of the books I rescued from the library dumpster.)

  19. As for the Slavic and Baltic Reading Room, why couldn’t they appeal to a Russian billionaire to put his long name on the Reading Room?
    The reading rooms probably attracted the wrong sort of people – you know, scholars and raggedy intellectual types. I think the libary wants to appeal to a hipper 20 something beautiful person crowd.

  20. maidhc: willing to donate some of the books
    James Wood had a recent article in The New Yorker, about his late father-in-law’s fantastic book collection, in which he said nowadays it’s impossible to even give stuff like this away to public libraries.

  21. Yeah, almost everything I read about libraries these days is depressing. And I love librarians to pieces (they’re dependable paladins for free speech and privacy), but when you talk to them about this stuff they’re all chipper: “You just don’t understand. The pressures of [blah blah] and the new social [blah blah] and libraries aren’t just for readers anymore and we have to throw out all the books that haven’t been checked out in the last two weeks and install coffee shops and let people conga in the aisles!”

  22. The reading rooms probably attracted the wrong sort of people – you know, scholars and raggedy intellectual types.
    That just reminded me of a bit of banter from an actually worthwhile romantic comedy, Adventureland:

    Sue O’Malley: What are you majoring in?
    Joel: Russian literature and Slavic languages.
    Sue O’Malley: Oh wow, that’s pretty interesting. What career track is that?
    Joel: Cabby, hot dog vendor, marijuana delivery guy. The world is my oyster.

  23. “I don’t want to get into politics”: how very wise. I only wish more politicians had felt like that.
    Tell me, WKPD reports “It is a privately managed, nonprofit corporation” – does that mean that it’s effectively a charity, and covered by whatever State laws cover charities?

  24. A U.S. non-profit organization need not be a charity. There is no precise legal definition: for federal tax purposes an NPO must have “religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes” (probably educational in this case). A non-profit must spend its surplus revenues on its goals and not redistribute them to its shareholders (if any). Furthermore, in U.S. law an NPO may not “directly or indirectly participat[e] in, or interven[e] in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
    Most states defer to federal law in this area.

  25. John Emerson says:

    Just like corporations, nonprofits are capable of being looted by management. I don’t know what the safeguards are. Paying high salaries to non-profit heads is justified by the amount of money they bring in by schmoozing up very rich people. There are also credentialed careerists whose career plan is to run a nonprofit, and they look around for financially weak nonprofits that seem ripe for a takeover.
    That’s the negative side. Someone else can tell the positive side.

  26. Thanks, JC. It sounds like what would be class as an educational charity in Britain.
    “Just like corporations, nonprofits are capable of being looted by management.” Aye, the people running universities and other charities in Britain seem to get paid more and more these days. And hospitals, and town councils, and….
    Still, they claim moral superiority to people in profit-making companies, so that’s all right then.

  27. The people I know who’ve worked for nonprofits say it’s far worse than working for normal companies; because of that “moral superiority,” they can justify treating their workers badly and expecting far more of them for far less pay than a normal company would. And if you object, you must hate children/culture/sick people/whatever the deserving object of the endeavor is!

  28. rootlesscosmo says:

    @maidhc:
    The murals that used to be on the walls flanking the Main Library center staircase are now at the DeYoung:
    http://deyoung.famsf.org/piazzoni-murals-room

  29. Hat: My (very limited) experience has been the same; Robin had such a job. She said the owners also came up with clever ways to fool the auditors and give themselves perks, which of course they felt they deserved.

  30. There was a big flap some years back when it was found that the CEO of New York’s public television station was being paid more than any of his commercial counterparts in the same area.
    And the worst working experience of my life was at Google, which operates much like a non-profit except that instead of writing grants when it wants more money for one of Google’s projects, it simply dips into the money pit in the basement labeled “Advertising Income”. You’d think that because ads are where Google’s money comes from that they’d have high status inside the company, but it’s not so at all.
    There was more than one problem at Google, including with me, but the overall attitude of “This isn’t a job, it’s a movement!”, plus the college-student perks (pool tables in the office, free candy and cereal, etc.) really contributed to the effect.

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