“The Future of the New York Public Library”: A Longer Account

Tuesday night’s panel at the New School’s Theresa Lang Forum on the future of the New York Public Library was lively and productive. In an earlier post, I gave a highlights reel; here I’ll give a more in-depth account. (I’ll be commenting liberally, but I’ll try to confine my editorial commentary to notes in italics and in parentheses—like this one.)

Update: You can stream or download an audio recording of the panel here. And you can stream or download a video of the panel here. (The sound is a little better on the audio-only recording.)

The panel was hosted by n+1, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Institute for Public Knowledge. The moderator was Eric Banks, the president of the National Book Critics Circle. The panelists were as follows:

Eric Banks began by outlining what is known about the Central Library Plan: It is a proposal to ship to New Jersey the 3 million books currently stored in the stacks underneath the 42nd Street building’s Rose reading room, and in their place to install a new circulating library, which will replace the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) across Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, now in disrepair. The functions of the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) would also be moved into the 42nd Street building.

Anthony Marx

Marx remarked that he had no interest in pitting the New York Public Library’s two missions against each other—no interest in pitting the function of research against the function of the circulating libraries. He asserted, however, that the “the current status quo cannot be maintained and should not be maintaned,” and said that the Central Library Plan was designed to address three problems: the decrepit condition of the Mid-Manhattan Library, where scaffolding had in fact been erected that morning to catch falling masonry; the unsafe preservation conditions for books currently stored in the stacks of the 42nd Street building; and declining levels of funding for curators and acquisitions.

He asserted that under the CLP, no part of the 42nd Street building currently open to the public would change, except for a wall near the coat check at the 42nd Street entrance, which would be knocked down, and a reconfiguration of rooms on the second floor that are currently unused. He said that access to the new circulating library would be through the 42nd Street entrance and perhaps also through the Bryant Park side of the building. He said that under the CLP the new building would remain open until 11pm. He said there were as yet no architectural plans or model, but that he would have something to show the public in September.

According to Marx, the estimated cost of the CLP is $300 million. The City of New York has promised $150 million, and the sale of MML and SIBL, four or five years from now, would generate more funds (the two buildings are widely reported to be worth about $100 million apiece). Marx said that the CLP would improve the library’s bottom line by $12 to $15 million a year. This number has been given to the public before, but Marx broke it down a little: He said that $7 million a year would come from operational savings, which he promised to achieve without layoffs, and $5 million a year from new fundraising. (I’ve long suspected that the reason that the library has given this number as a range—for a long time it was given as “$10 million to $15 million a year,” but it now seems to have shifted to “$12 million to $15 million a year”—was that a large component of it derived from new fundraising, the exact amount of which couldn’t be known in advance. It’s nice to have my hunch confirmed. For the record, the $7-million-a-year number was first reported by Petersen, in “Lions in Winter”; Petersen’s source was David Offensend, the library’s chief operating officer, who was in the audience Tuesday night. There’s still much more that I would like to know about the $7-million-a-year figure. I’d like to know, for example, how much of the savings would come from closing SIBL and how much from closing MML.)

(A further note about the relationship between the endowment and annual spending—and about truth in advertising. By law, a non-profit is required to spend at least 5 percent of its endowment every year. If you add $100 million to your endowment, then you’ll be spending an additional $5 million a year. The library’s administrators sometimes describe the CLP’s alleged improvement of their bottom line by $15 million a year as being “equivalent” to a $300 million addition to the endowment. They don’t mean by this that the CLP will add $300 million to the endowment. They mean that some money will be added to the endowment, and some of the annual operating expenses will be lowered by consolidating three buildings into one, and that when you add the two factors together, you’ll get an improvement in the annual budget of $15 million a year. What made the CLP so appealing, in its original presentation, is that it seemed to allow the library to eat its cake and have it, too: the administrators seemed able to spend $300 million and still “have” the “equivalent” of a $300 million addition to their endowment. It’s important to understand that the word “have,” in this way of speaking, doesn’t meant what “have” usually means, and that the word “equivalent” is not the same as the word “real.” In fact, as last night’s disclosure reveals, the CLP savings from building consolidation are only estimated to be $7 million a year, which is “equivalent” only to a $140 million addition to the endowment. Of the $12 million a year that the administrators look forward to, the remaining $5 million a year is expected to come from raising a real $100 million for the endowment. So the origami is not as clever as originally advertised. In fact, when one looks with a more skeptical eye, the library seems to be proposing to spend $350 million for the sake of an endowment “equivalent” of just $140 million. Moreover, if $100 million can be raised for the CLP, the same amount can presumably also be raised for a different project just as inspiring—maybe even for a project that wouldn’t damage the library’s research mission.)

What will happen to the books at 42nd Street? Marx said that there are now about 3 million books in the stacks, 1.2 million in the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE), and 300,000 to 400,000 stored elsewhere in the building. He said that 4 million volumes are now stored offiste. After the CLP, at least 2 million books would remain onsite, mostly in BPSE. (This is a much clearer way of counting the books than was used in some of the administrators’ earlier public statements, which failed to count the storage in BPSE and elsewhere in the building in the “before” column but did count those storage spaces in the “after” column—a misleading presentation that has been reflected in a number of journalistic accounts. I’m glad that the library’s administrators and publicists are now admitting candidly that they propose to lower the number of books onsite at 42nd Street from 5 million to 2 million.) Of the 3 million books to be moved offsite, Marx said that 1 million have been digitized, and 2 million have a “usage rate” of 2 percent. He claimed that 90 percent of books that have been used recently will stay onsite. BPSE has a second floor, currently unused, and Marx said that he was willing to consider outfitting it and thereby increasing the storage available onsite, but he was concerned about the cost.

In conclusion, Marx said that the Central Library Plan would improve everything that the library does.

Charles Petersen

According to Petersen, the library has been claiming that the CLP is far-sighted, offers the best option for all the library’s stakeholders, and is required as a matter of economic necessity.

Petersen argued, however, that the CLP was shortsighted—reflective of a guess about the future likely to look dated very soon, much like the vision of a CD-ROM future around which the library planned the design of SIBL in the 1990s, now widely recognized as a costly mistake.

Petersen doubted that the CLP would serve all users well, and was skeptical of Marx’s claim that 90 percent of the books requested would remain onsite. Petersen asked where the statistic had come from, and wondered whether consultants hired by the library had undertaken market segmentation analysis—that is, whether they had tried to find out how different subgroups of library users would fare under the CLP. Did the 90 percent figure apply only to the average visitor, who asks for a book or two? If so, Petersen asked, what’s the comparable number for heavy researchers, who might ask for hundreds of books in a short span of time?

Finally, Petersen questioned that the CLP was really an economic necessity, or “tragic necessity,” as he called it. He pointed out that although the acquisitions budget fell in 2010 to its lowest level since 1986, the money that the library spends on management and development has remained constant since 2000. Meanwhile, adjusted for inflation, the library’s total spending has been greater in the 2000s than it was in the 1990s. “A lot of money is going into construction and renovations,” said Petersen. He pointed out that in the library’s projected budget improvement of $10 to $15 million a year, $5 million a year corresponded to new fundraising, which could be shifted to a different plan.

Petersen insisted that there were alternatives to the Central Library Plan. Although the library’s administrators now estimate that renovating the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) would cost $150 million, he noted that the New York State Division of Libraries estimated in 2010 that such a renovation would cost just $48 million. A decade ago, Gwathmey Siegel wrote up a plan not only to renovate MML but also to add eight floors, containing 117,000 square feet of new space; the price tag they came up with was just $120 million.

Petersen ended by calling for “a transitional plan for a transitional time.”

Joan Wallach Scott

Scott noted that some supporters of the CLP have charged that critics of the plan are elitist and are opposed to democracy. As examples of this polarizing rhetoric, she quoted recent remarks by Howard Dodson in the New York Times and a Daily News editorial. Scott strongly disagreed with this characterization of the CLP’s opponents. Scott said that critics of the CLP had no intention of keeping out the “unwashed masses,” as Dodson called them. To the contrary, the CLP’s critics, like most regular visitors the library’s 42nd Street building, understood that the unwashed masses were already here, and looked forward to continuing to work beside them.

The real threat to the library’s democratic mission, Scott charged, came from the reduction of the library’s expert curatorial staff, who alone can make its treasures accessible to anyone who walks in the door. Scott quoted a recent essay in The American Conservative that urged the library’s leaders not to confuse popularity with democracy. Democratic access to research, she concluded, is a “public good, not honored by a glitzy and overpriced reconstruction.”

Robert Darnton

Darnton began by agreeing with the democratic mission of the library championed by Scott. He said that he was particularly sympathetic with freelance writers who needed public access to a research-level collection, because he had once been such a writer: he composed his first scholarly article in the 42nd Street building in 1964, during hours stolen from his day-job as a reporter for the New York Times.

He argued that the CLP was needed to remedy the decline in the library’s spending on acquisitions, during a period when, contrary to rumor, the print book is very much flourishing. In fact, he noted, more print books are published every year, and the library needs to collect on both fronts, digital and analog. This inevitably leads to a problem of space. Recap, the library’s storage facility in Princeton, is ten years old, and now contains about half its collections. Books there are supposed to arrive at 42nd Street within 24 hours, and Darnton said he believed critics were right to insist on that level of service. He also said that he believed that the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) should be brought into use, and he estimated the cost of outfitting it at $15 to $20 million. (An earlier estimate by the library administration was $20 million.)

However, Darnton continued, even if the second floor of BPSE were opened, it would soon fill up. He listed several advantages to offsite storage: books could be ordered online in advance; technology now allowed for “digital browsing,” that is, for looking at digital images of the spines and tables of contents of neighboring books on the shelf; and “scan and deliver” services can transmit small portions of books electronically. (Unfortunately, “digital browsing” would be of limited use at the New York Public Library, where for four decades or so, newly acquired books have been cataloged by size, not topic, in order to maximize storage space.) Darnton also noted that preservation conditions are better offsite. In the stacks at 42nd Street, the average temperature is 74 degrees Fahrenheit, but it can soar into the eighties. Darnton agreed with Nicholson Baker that the threat to paper has often been exaggerated by librarians, but he noted that the temperature in the Recap facility is a steady 55 degrees. The per-book cost of storage at Recap is half of the cost in BPSE, and Darnton didn’t think that removal of 3 million books from 42nd Street would inconvenience anyone.

Darnton took issue with critics who alleged that the CLP would turn the 42nd Street building into an “internet café.” He conceded, though, that claims by supporters that the CLP would be more democratic were “misleading.” He took issue with Petersen’s charge that the trustees had guessed the future and were making a risky bet on the e-book. “We are not trying to predict the future now,” Darnton said. “We are trying to meet our commitments in the present.”

David Nasaw

Nasaw noted that he teaches at CUNY, which depends on the NYPL as a research library—a dependence that the state legislature recognizes by giving the library $1.1 million a year. “Now we’re being told,” Nasaw said, “that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards.” To supporters of the CLP who pointed out that offsite storage had been going on for a decade already, he answered, “That’s what frightens us.” He didn’t think the administrators could plausibly claim that service would improve. Was traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike suddenly going to decrease? He wouldn’t believe the library’s claims unless he was given many specifics, down to the details of the van schedules. “If it’s going to work tomorrow, why doesn’t it work today?”

Nasaw said that he was too much a New Yorker to believe in conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, he was enough of a New Yorker to know how deals are usually made here, and, he said, “I would not be shocked if the voices speaking loudest” in favor of the CLP are in real estate. He called the CLP “fatally flawed,” and said “This boat don’t float.” He called it a feast for the circulating side of the library’s mission, with a few scraps for the research side. “We have no assurance that these savings are ever going to add up,” he said of the hoped-for budgetary improvements, “or that they’ll go to the research budget.”

Nasaw insisted, however, that the president and staff of the library are “not our enemies.” Their good faith was proved by the fact that they had come to this event, and that they had invited onto an advisory panel people like him who they knew would not roll over. He disagreed with the notion that statistical models could show that it was safe to move a book offsite, saying that “If a book is only read once every fifty years, it needs to be there” when the scholar in search of it arrives.

Mark Alan Hewitt

When the 42nd Street building was completed in 1911, Hewitt said, it was considered a marvel, centered around a new piece of technology: the elevator. The librarian John Shaw Billings, after a tour of the world’s best libraries, came up with the idea of putting the reading room on top of the stacks, and as a preservationist, Hewitt felt that the stacks ought to be first on the list of what to landmark in the building. He considered them as important to the library, architecturally, as the steel train sheds were to the old Penn Station. Because of the sturdiness of their construction, Hewitt thought it would take an “engineering marvel” to dismantle them. For their day, they were considered fire-resistant, because closely packed books were expected to burn slowly, like timber, allowing fire rescue teams to put fires out before they could spread.

As an architect, Hewitt didn’t understand why anyone thought it was a good idea to put people into a space designed for books, and pointed out that the space now occupied by the stacks would be hard to illuminate, and hard to heat and cool in a way humans would find comfortable. Why not fit a circulating library into existing unused space in the 42nd Street building? Hewitt asked.

When the library was first built, its architects underestimated the cost of demolishing the Croton Reservoir that stood on the site. Demolition ended up costing as much as the rest of construction, and Hewitt wondered if the library’s new architects would also be surprised by the cost of demolition, which would be extremely complex. To name just one small challenge: Where would the debris chute go? So rugged are the stacks, Hewitt asserted, that if the NYPL were bombed tomorrow, the stacks would remain standing while the marble building around them crumbled.

Why sacrifice this piece of history? Hewitt asked. He called the CLP “a mistake that New Yorkers will regret for generations.”


A few scattered notes:

Marx said, “I will commit to the majority of the $15 million being used for librarians and for collections.”

Petersen called for the library to release detailed analyses of the other plans it had explored. He pointed out that for the cost of the CLP, the library could build seven Bronx Library Centers.

Marx said that he was concerned about losing the $150 million that the City of New York had promised to the library for the CLP. He admitted, though, that it was “conceivable” that the city might not withdraw the money if the library asked to modify its plans.

In response to a questioner who identified herself as a former librarian and asked about the gag orders that departing staffers must sign in order to receive their severance packages, Marx said, “The library does use severance agreements with employees under certain circumstances. As I understand it, these agreements are standard operating procedure. They are not meant to prevent staff from talking about issues of public concern, like this,” i.e., like the CLP. He called the CLP a “staff-driven plan,” and said that he had told his staff that “they can say anything critical.” He has even invited staff members to write to him anonymously, if they feel the need to.

Petersen stressed that the library’s plan was radical and pointed out that no other major research library has shipped such an overwhelming majority of its books offsite. The Library of Congress, for example, keeps only 3 million of its 34 million books offsite, and the proportion offsite at Yale and the University of California, Berkely, are also low. Petersen asked Darnton why he didn’t take the stacks out of Widener, the core of the Harvard library system that Darnton oversees. “We’re not about to take the stacks out of Widener,” Darnton answered. “Why do it to NYPL if you won’t do it to Widener?” Petersen replied.

There were many other questions, many quite important, but my note-taking capacity flagged toward the end of the evening; my apologies.