“The Future of the New York Public Library”: Highlights from the Panel Discussion

Last night I attended a panel at the New School’s Theresa Lang Forum on the future of the New York Public Library, hosted by n+1, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Institute for Public Knowledge. It was a lively discussion, which brought a number of new facts about the NYPL’s Central Library Plan (CLP) onto the public record and suggested several new angles for viewing it. All seats inside the forum were occupied, and I learned this morning that the guards were adhering strictly to fire codes and turned away latecomers.

For those who were turned away, I’ll write a longish account on this blog shortly. For skimmers, though, here’s what was new to me (this will be a little inside-baseball; I’ll try to explain more carefully in the longer post that follows):

  • Until recently, the library’s publicists have claimed that the CLP will improve the library’s annual budget by $12 to $15 million while refusing to break the number down. NYPL president Anthony Marx conceded last night that $5 million of that $12 to $15 million a year is in fact expected to come from $100 million of new fundraising. The savings from consolidation per se are estimated to be only $7 million a year. (Note: There’s still a lot more I’d like to know more about the specifics of where those savings are supposed to come from.)

  • The library’s publicists claim that a standalone renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library would cost $150 million, but Charles Petersen suggested last night that the number might be overblown. He reported that in 2010 New York State’s Division of Library Development estimated the cost as $48 million. He also reported that a decade ago Gwathmey Siegel developed a plan to renovate the Mid-Manhattan and add eight stories, and at the time estimated the cost of the combined renovation and expansion as $120 million.
  • Robert Darnton, though a supporter of the CLP, believes that the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, currently empty, should be outfitted and used to store books.
  • Architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt suggested that dismantling the seven stories of bookshelves under the Rose reading room would require “an engineering marvel” and said that he worries that the library’s estimates of the cost and difficulty of demolition may be far too low. “If the New York Public Library were bombed tomorrow,” he said, “the stacks would remain standing.”
  • The City of New York has offered to give the library $150 million toward the CLP. Marx suggested that the library should do nothing to jeopardize the grant, but he admitted that it’s “conceivable” that the City of New York could let the New York Public Library change the CLP.
  • In the Q&A period, when a longtime NYPL employee asked about the nondisparagement agreements that the library obliges many retirees to sign in order to receive their severance packages, Marx asserted that “They are not meant to prevent staff from talking about issues of public concern,” and he then named the controversy over the CLP as the sort of public issue that they were free to talk about. (In my opinion, this could be the biggest news of the evening, because—please consult your lawyers first—it could free former library staff to discuss candidly with the press their assessments of the Central Library Plan.) Or maybe not. Please see below, for an update.
  • Petersen noted that no other major research library has taken the radical step the New York Public Library is contemplating: namely, shipping the vast majority of its books offsite. The Library of Congress, for example, owns 34 million books and stores offsite only 3 million. Petersen asked Darnton, who oversees Harvard’s Widener library, what would happen if he were to try such a plan there. “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.
  • Darnton asserted that meetings of the library’s Board of Trustees are open to the public, and suggested that the trustees will welcome visitors.

Update, 10 minutes later: I just saw the wording of a nondisparagement agreement signed by a recent NYPL employee, and it’s much more sweeping than Marx suggested last night. There’s no mention of any exception for an issue of public interest. To the contrary, the wording forbids any comment that would adversely affect any of the library’s plans. Perhaps Marx was merely acknowledging last night that the First Amendment would make enforcement of the agreement over an issue of public interest impossible. Please understand that I’m not a lawyer, and if you’re under one of these agreements, please do consult a lawyer before speaking out.

Further update, a few hours later: The New York Times has just published a new article about the library’s gag orders.