Finding numbers for Plan B

On Friday, 8 June 2012, I attended a meeting at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building for alumni of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where the library administrators Tony Marx and Ann Thornton answered questions about the controversial Central Library Plan, which I and a number of others oppose. The meeting was on the record, and the administrators released several new pieces of information. The next day, I sent follow-up questions by email, which Ann Thornton answered on June 14. Below, I’ll relate what happened at the meeting, supplementing my report with details from Ann Thornton’s email. I’ll also add some commentary.

In his opening remarks, Tony Marx recapitulated the advantages of the library’s plan. He said that the plan is meant to address three challenges: the disrepair of the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML), poor preservation conditions in the stacks in the 42nd Street building, and an annual budget shortfall. The Central Library Plan proposes to solve these by moving 3 million books from the 42nd Street building to a state-of-the-art storage facility in New Jersey and putting in their place—inside what Marx called “the largest indoor space in New York City”—a new circulating library. This new library would replace the MML, whose property would be sold, as would that of the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL). Marx said that the 42nd Street building would not be closed for a single day during the new construction. Thanks to savings from the consolidation of the buildings and to new fundraising, he expected the plan would improve the library’s annual budget by $15 million a year.

I’ve objected in the past that the library’s administrators only began to voice their concern about the preservation conditions in the stacks at 42nd Street after the Central Library Plan was criticized. I noted that new ventilation and air conditioning were installed in the stacks in the 1980s and it seemed unlikely to me that the books there were in imminent peril. I asked for more information about the alleged preservation risks of the 42nd Street stacks, . . . and at the June 8 meeting, Marx provided some. He said that an index of the preservation conditions in the New Jersey storage facility is five to six times higher than that in the 42nd Street stacks. Thornton elaborated on this statistic in her June 14 email to me, explaining that the variable in question is the Time-Weighted Preservation Index (TWPI), a measure developed by the Image Permanence Institute. The TWPI of the library’s New Jersey storage facility is between 163 and 244 for paper and over 1,000 for film. At 42nd Street, the TWPI in the central stacks is 44.5.

The Image Permanence Institute says that the unit of the TWPI is “years,” but that strikes me as a confusing way to think about it. In an environment with a TWPI of 44.5, a book won’t crumble to dust in 44.5 years. As the institute’s online guide explains, the TWPI is a relative measure, calibrated so that an environment rated with a TWPI of 50 does as much damage to a book as a room kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity for fifty years. A room with a TWPI of 100 takes twice as long to do the same amount of damage, either because of a lower temperature or better humidity control. Higher numbers are better, in other words, and a TWPI of 44.5 isn’t great. In fact, the Image Permanence Institute estimates that the cut-off between “OK” and “Risk” falls at a TWPI of 45. In other words, the 42nd Street stacks are in the risky zone, by a hair’s breadth. I’m surprised the conditions are that bad, but not that surprised, and it’s still not evident to me that the Central Library Plan, with its estimated cost of $300 million, is the best way to ensure the preservation of the 3 million books now in the 42nd Street stacks. Surely it would be cheaper to upgrade the building’s 30-year-old air conditioning? Moreover, preservation always has to be balanced against access. I doubt that the TWPI of Columbia University’s Butler Library is much better, and I doubt that Columbia’s faculty would stand for shipping Butler’s central stacks to New Jersey in order to save them.

Marx went on to characterize opposition to the Central Library Plan as consisting of three arguments: (1) The library ought to be spending on the branches instead. (2) Bringing a circulating library into the research building will invite riffraff into a sacred space. And (3) the removal of books from the 42nd Street building will delay research and impede access to books. In fact, only the last of these three concerns—the potential damage to scholarship—resonates with me. The concern about riffraff is not one I share, at all. During the meeting, in an impolitic moment, I even called it a straw man. As Marx pointed out, my outburst was somewhat unfair, since regret over riffraff was the burden of Edmund Morris’s snooty New York Times op-ed, which has subsequently been mistaken as representative of the Central Library Plan’s critics by . . . the New York Times. I find the concern frustrating and distracting. The free and open doors of the library are dear to me, and I’m opposed to the Central Library Plan because I want that access to remain broad and meaningful.

During the question-and-answer period, I challenged Marx’s claim that the plan would improve the library’s bottom line by $15 million a year. I pointed out that Charles Petersen reported in n+1 that David Offensend, the library’s chief operations officer, has admitted that the operational savings from consolidating the buildings are only estimated to be $7 million a year. The rest of the benefit is to come from new funds raised in the name of the project, and I suggested that any new funds raised for the Central Library Plan could also be raised for an alternative. (Little to none of the projected benefit to the annual bottom line, by the way, is likely to come from an addition to the endowment resulting from the sale of the MML or SIBL properties. Those properties are thought to be worth $100 million each, and the library estimates the cost of the plan as $300 million.) I then asked what the savings from building consolidation would be if the library were to compromise by closing and selling SIBL, renovating MML, and leaving the 42nd Street building alone (I outlined such a plan on my blog recently, but I believe the library itself was the first to come up with it).

Marx replied that the library’s administrators have actually done a financial analysis of a proposal along the lines I suggested, and for a number of reasons, they believe the benefit would be lower. He said that he doubted, for example, that a renovation of MML would attract donations as readily as the Central Library Plan, which is a more charismatic project. He said that estimates for a renovation of MML were now “north” of the $150 million that was the library’s own estimate until very recently, though he didn’t give the new number. He expressed concern that the city of New York might not permit the library to alter plans for the $150 million that the city has already committed. In making the comparative analysis, he said, the administrators added in a capital expenditure for upgrading the preservation conditions in the stacks. Their results: In the Central Library Plan, which consolidates three buildings into one, the operational savings are estimated to be $7 million a year. In the alternative plan, which consolidates three buildings into two, the operational savings are estimated to be $2.5 to $3 million a year. Over all, Marx said, “at our best estimate at this point, the financial benefit of the alternative plan is a third of what is estimated for the Central Library Plan.”

In response to a request from me for clarification, Ann Thornton provided a few more numbers. She explained that the estimate for the alternative plan included the costs of a bare-bones renovation of MML, during which MML would remain open; an outfitting of the 42nd Street building to accommodate the public services formerly housed at SIBL; and an upgrade of the preservation conditions in the stacks. The total expense, she said, came to almost as much as that of the CLP.

She added:

We also made a leap-of-faith assumption that we could retain $100 million of the $150 million of already-committed City funding in this scenario.

Since in this alternative scenario we would not be selling MML and since it would be more difficult to raise private funds, it’s safe to say that the alternative plan would generate at least $100 million less for the Library’s endowment, which would mean $5 million less per year in spendable resources. Add to this the reduced operating savings (an estimated $3 million versus $7 million) and the alternative plan would yield at least $9 million less per year than that CLP.

I wish that the library were willing to release this analysis in full, but the information they have revealed, though selective, is intriguing. It’s possible, moreover, to reverse-engineer some of the numbers not disclosed by Marx or Thornton, through straightforward arithmetic. The table below is my reconstruction of their analysis. It’s admittedly quite speculative. All figures are in millions of dollars. The numbers directly provided by Marx or Thornton are in bold; all other numbers derive, thanks to arithmetic, from Marx’s and Thornton’s statements about how much greater or lesser one quantity is than another. The variables X and Y indicate two quantities that I wasn’t able to fill in with arithmetic and remain unknown.

Central Library Plan Plan B
Costs Demolition & rebuilding of 42nd St, $300 Renovation of MML, upgrade of 42nd Street stacks, fitting SIBL into 42nd Street, total X
Income City of New York, $150 City of New York, $100
SIBL sale, $100 SIBL sale, $100
MML sale, $100 MML sale, $0
new fundraising, $110 new fundraising, Y
Income minus costs (addition to endowment) $160 $60
Annual benefit from endowment increase (1/20th of endowment increase) $8/year $3/year
Annual operational savings from building consolidation $7/year $3/year
Total improvement to annual budget $15/year $6/year

Of X and Y, algebra says that the difference X-Y is $260 million, that is, that X must be $260 million greater than Y. We also know that X is almost as much as $300 million, and that Y isn’t less than zero. I think it would be fair to guess that the library estimates the total cost of Plan B to be around $280 million, and that they estimate they could only raise around $20 million in new fundraising for it.

Having extracted this analysis, let me take a step back from it. Is it plausible? I confess that I find it hard to believe that Plan B could cost almost as much as the Central Library Plan. Until very recently, the library itself was estimating the cost of a standalone renovation of MML as $150 million. At the May 22 panel on the library’s future at the New School, Charles Petersen noted that a New York State agency estimated in 2010 that a bare-bones renovation of MML would cost $48 million and that Gwathmey-Siegel estimated a decade ago that a renovation that added eight floors would cost $120 million. But say it is $150 million. And say that furnishing rooms at 42nd Street so as to house SIBL’s functions costs $30 million. That leaves $100 million unaccounted for—is that really how much it costs to improve the air conditioning in the stacks? Is that the cost of getting the TWPI to 163? If so, what would it cost to get the TWPI to 75, the threshold for “Good”? Presumably the new circulating library will also require an upgrade to the building’s air conditioning, since the Central Library Plan involves replacing books with people, who give off much more heat and moisture. For the sake of comparison, how much is that upgrade going to cost?

I’m still not convinced, in other words, that the library wouldn’t be better off with Plan B. I wonder, too, how the CLP’s numbers would stand up to what bank regulators call stress-testing. At the New School panel, the architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt noted that the 42nd Street stacks are much more rugged than the building that surrounds them, and he worried that the library might not have allotted enough for demolition costs. If fundraising were to come up short for the CLP, and if demolition and construction costs were to come in high, the endowment would not rise as expected. The numbers shift quickly. If the demolition and construction costs of the CLP came to $400 million (Scott Sherman reported in the Nation in December 2011 that the cost might be as high as $350 million), and only $50 million were raised in new funds, there would be no rise in the endowment and thus only a $7 million a year improvement to the annual bottom line. Suppose, on the other hand, that the library switches to Plan B and the city lets the library keep all of the $150 million allocated to it, and suppose that renovation of MML costs only $150 million and that better air conditioning and SIBL furnishing only come to $50 million. In that case, Plan B would add $70 million to the endowment, and Plan B would improve the bottom line by $6.5 million a year. I’m making up numbers now, I know, but think of the scale and nature of the two projects being compared. Is it likely they cost the same?

The meeting produced a few other pieces of news.

  • Marx said that he is still considering the option of bringing into service the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, the underground storage facility to the west of the 42nd Street building. It now holds 1.2 million volumes, but the administrators believe that each floor could be set up to hold 1.5 million volumes. I said that bringing the second floor into use would be a significant and meaningful compromise. (The administrators say they hesitate to make the compromise because the cost is significant.)
  • Thornton said that in response to concern from Slavic and Eastern European scholars, the administrators have increased the staffing in support of their research and are exploring the possibility of setting up an area studies reading room for them at 42nd Street.
  • I asked about Petersen’s report, in his n+1 article, that the library was no longer collecting at the research level in psychology, education, and economics. Thornton said that the library still acquires books in all those fields but in education no longer acquires them at a level that would support a graduate student’s research, hasn’t collected in psychology at that level for some time, and now restricts its collecting in economics to economic history, primarily in English and with a focus on America and several other countries.
  • On the subject of improving delivery of offsite books, Thornton said that the library is exploring the possibility of two delivery runs per day, and is taking part in a planning grant to develop a better inventory control system, which would track books more consistently as they travel to and from storage.
  • On the subject of restoring curatorial expertise, Marx said, “I would prefer not to wait five years to start hiring curators. I’d like to start fundraising now to get those positions.” Thornton confirmed that the library has raised the profile of several curatorial positions that could be named by donors.

Where am I after all this? I’m grateful that the library’s administrators continue to share information and that they’re responsive to concerns, especially to concerns about the speed and reliability of offsite delivery. I appreciate the signs that the library’s new administration takes seriously the need for curatorial and bibliographic expertise, a great deal of which was lost over the past decade. I think that the second level of the Bryant Park Stack Extension could be a meaningful point of compromise, though I worry about reports of water damage to it. I remain hopeful that the library’s trustees will consider finding an alternative to the Central Library Plan altogether.