New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee will hold a hearing on the New York Public Library’s proposal to change its facade on Tuesday, January 22, at 2pm, in its conference room on the ninth floor of 1 Centre Street. In advance of the hearing, details of the library’s proposal, as prepared by Foster + Partners, were on display today at the Landmarks Preservation Committee’s office, and I took photos, which I’ve uploaded here. Please note that these plans don’t reflect any of the changes that have been proposed for the interior of the building, because only the facade has landmark protection.
On 19 December 2012, at 11am, the New York Public Library presented in outline the architectural plans for its Central Library Plan (CLP), a proposal to close the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library and replace the bookshelves that house the 42nd Street building’s research collection with a new circulating library. The library’s president Anthony Marx and its chosen architect Norman Foster spoke. In the weeks since this press conference, architecture critics have begun to weigh in—some positive, some negative. I took notes, and though I’ve already written up my first impression, Marx and Foster released a number of details that don’t seem to have made it into press accounts, and I thought I would share my notes here. (When I can’t resist editorializing, I’ll set off my comments with parentheses and italics, like this.)
“Our aim,” said Marx, in his remarks at the press conference, “is to provide to New Yorkers and to all comers the greatest library facility in the world.” The CLP, he said, aspires to “bring back to this building the two halves of this great library”—its circulating and its research missions. He described the new space, which is to be inserted in the space under the Rose reading room, where the bookshelves of the research library now stand, as “a brand-new state-of-the-art Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library,” adding that because the future of all libraries, including the New York Public, remains unclear, the new space will be flexible.
Marx insisted that the 42nd Street building would continue to be a “great space for exhibitions.” He said that the building’s research collection was “currently housed in stacks with almost no climate control or fire safety” and that under the new dispensation, the books would be much better cared for—in fact, five times better cared for. (Though he didn’t name it, Marx seems here to have been referring to the 42nd Street building’s rating on the Time-Weighted Preservation Index, a measurement scale devised by the Image Permanence Institute. As I explained in an earlier blog post, the 42nd Street stacks are currently rated 44.5, which means that a book held there suffers as much damage in 44.5 years as a book stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity would suffer in 50 years. Under the CLP, by comparison, books would be stored in conditions where it would take 163 to 244 years for them to suffer an equivalent amount of damage.) The books will get what they need, Marx said, and the people, what they need. Marx claimed that the administration expects the CLP to make available to the library an additional $15 million a year. (There’s a touch of spin here: The library’s chief operations officer has estimated that the savings from consolidating three buildings into one would amount to only $7 million a year. The difference between $7 million and $15 million is to come from interest that would accrue on new funds raised for the CLP.) Marx promised that the renovated building would stay open until 11pm most nights, “revitalizing the evening experience in this neighborhood.”
Marx acknowledged that the CLP had come in for criticism, and he asserted that “we heard concerns about the plans,… and we adjusted and improved them.” He said that no public spaces in the building were going to change. In fact, he said, spaces not previously open to the public were going to be made newly accessible. In closing, he remarked that in the days just after Hurricane Sandy, visits to the “aesthetically challenged” Mid-Manhattan Library had doubled, and as proof of the library administration’s commitment to serving the public, he pointed out that despite recent, unexpected budget cuts, the library hasn’t closed branches or cut hours.
The architect Norman Foster then presented a slideshow, which surveyed the changes to the 42nd Street building over time and his proposed alterations to the structure. Foster began by noting that the Rose reading room is 51 feet high and that a visitor has to climb 50 feet through the 42nd Street building in order to reach it. Returning to this symmetry, somewhat later in his remarks, Foster observed that the volume that contains the bookshelves under the Rose reading room is roughly the same size as the volume of the Rose reading room itself. Foster pointed out that there had been a circulating library inside the 42nd Street building once before, in the space now known as the Bartos Forum, and that there had previously been a children’s library in rooms on the ground floor currently used for administrative offices. At the moment, Foster said, 30 percent of the building is open to the public; the CLP would make 66 percent of the building publicly accessible. (It seems worth pointing out that the proportion of the 42nd Street building open to the public may not be the most pertinent statistic. The CLP calls for the closing of two other facilities: the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library. I suspect that the total amount of floorspace open to the public will remain little changed. Also, it would be possible to open new writer’s spaces on the second floor of the 42nd Street building and a new children’s library on the ground floor without removing the building’s bookshelves.)
Foster noted that in the 1980s, a space for an underground parking lot had been excavated beneath Bryant Park, next-door to the library, and after the city intervened, one of two levels in this space was devoted to book storage instead of parking. The second level was left empty for years, but thanks to a gift from Abby and Howard Milstein announced in September, soon this second level, too, will be able to hold books. (This is a significant alteration to the CLP, and a major concession to critics like me who were concerned that the CLP would drastically reduce on-site book storage. I, for one, appreciate it greatly.) Thanks to the Milsteins’ gift, the capacity of the Bryant Park Stack Extension will grow from 1.5 million to 3 million volumes. The above-ground stacks in the 42nd Street building, meanwhile, hold 3 million books. In an animated diagram, Foster showed the books that used to be stored in the 42nd Street building flowing into the new facility under Bryant Park. (Foster was indulging in a little sleight of hand here. The 3 million books once stored in the 42nd Street stacks will indeed fit in the new Bryant Park storage facility—but only if the 1.5 million books that were formerly stored under Bryant Park are sent away to off-site storage in New Jersey. This is an improvement over the original plan—which was to send 3 million books to New Jersey and keep only 1.5 million under Bryant Park—and as I said, I appreciate the improvement greatly, but it remains true that the CLP will entail a loss of on-site storage.)
Foster then showed images, including a video “fly-through,” of the construction he proposes for the space under the Rose reading room currently occupied by bookshelves. In Foster’s fly-through, visible here, a viewer enters the building from Fifth Avenue, crosses the vestibule known as Astor Hall, walks through the exhibition space known as Gottesman Hall, and emerges on the third of five floors (or the second of four, depending on whether you count the lowest level) that Foster would like to insert into the space under the Rose reading room. These four (or five) levels looked to me a bit like loggias in an opera house. They’re hollowed out in the center, as if around an orchestra pit. The proscenium that they face is the western façade of the library, which looks out onto Bryant Park.
Foster acknowledged that the Rose reading room is currently supported structurally by the cast-iron “stacks,” or bookshelves, under it. He said that the engineers who would handle the removal of the stacks are those responsible for the recent creation of new spaces under Carnegie Hall and under City Hall, and that he was confident that they were up to the challenge. (Marx later identified the firm as Robert Silman Associates, and indeed they seem to have an excellent reputation.) Foster said that the delivery desk in the Rose reading room, the central point for receiving and distributing books, would remain unchanged. He said that it was still “early days” in terms of design choices, but that he expected the new space would be furnished in wood, bronze, and stone, materials “which age gracefully” and are used elsewhere in the building. He said that he hoped to recycle some of the existing book stacks as shelving in the new space. He asserted that the new space would be 65 feet high, and that as he planned for the ceiling, he was struck by the frosted-glass skylights elsewhere in the 42nd Street building—a hint that he was considering installing an artificially lit frosted-glass skylight.
During the question-and-answer period, Scott Sherman of The Nation asked Foster if he had any misgivings about the CLP in light of Ada Louise Huxtable’s recent strong critique in the Wall Street Journal. “No,” Foster replied. “The history of the building is one of change over time. The world today is not what it was in 1911,” when the 42nd Street structure was built. “I respect your question,” Foster continued; “I disagree with you.”
Someone else asked about the structural hazard that the demolition of the stacks posed to the Rose reading room, and Foster replied by shifting the question to a different danger: “The Rose reading room is currently at risk,” he said. “It’s the only public space in New York that sits on an un-fire-protected space…. If part of the story [of the renovation] is protecting the books, then another part is that we’re also protecting the Rose reading room. I cannot speak for the engineers, but they’re some of the best in the world.” In response to a second question about the logistics of renovating without endangering the Rose, Foster explained that in an initial phase, the engineers would create structural elements between the stacks that would hold up the Rose. Then, once this new supporting structure was in place, the engineers would remove the stacks. Foster said that he expected the new facility to open in 2018, and Marx promised that the 42nd Street building would stay open during construction.
I raised my hand and asked how books would reach the Rose reading room from the Bryant Park storage facility, since the plans suggested that the elevator that formerly raised books to the Rose delivery desk would soon be no more. I gave an account of the exchange in an earlier post, and to save time, I’ll repeat it here:
There’s currently a conveyor belt that brings books from the Bryant Park Stack Extension into the library building, and in reply to my question, Marx said that a second conveyor belt would be added to it, and a new elevator built somewhere on the south end of the building. The architectural historian Charles Warren followed up my question with a few others: Would the new elevator be put where the Art and Architecture reading room is now located? No, it was to be to one side, probably in the southeast corner of the Rose room. How would books get from the southeast corner of the Rose to the delivery desk? There might be room to build yet another conveyor belt in the crawl space between the floor of the Rose Reading Room and the drop ceiling of the new circulating library. Was this crawl space large enough for a person to walk in it? No. Then how would the conveyor be repaired if it broke?
Marx and Foster assured Warren that they would be able to come up with an answer.
Another questioner asked about the project’s funding, and Marx answered that the CLP was “self-funded.” He repeated the claim that the CLP will improve the library’s bottom line by $15 million a year, but he also said that financial gain was “not the driver of this project.” (The finances behind the CLP seem to be growing more obscure. Until this press conference, the library had consistently said that it estimated the cost of the renovation to be $300 million and that it had been promised $150 million from New York City and expected to raise about $200 million more by selling the properties that currently house the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library. Indeed, in June, the library quietly sold five floors of the science library for $61 million. In a New York Times article published the morning of the December 19 press conference, however, the library gave a new explanation for the sources of the CLP’s funds. The library still says that $150 million is going to come from the city, but according to the Times, it now claims that $50 million is coming from the 2008 sale of the Donnell branch and $100 million from the sale of the Annex, an offsite storage space on West 43rd Street, as well as from the sale of several floors of SIBL. I can’t quickly find the date that the Annex was sold, but I think it was before 2008. (UPDATE, 7 January 2013: I guessed wrong. It turns out that the library sold its West 43rd Street annex for $45 million in August 2011.) At the bottom of an ink-on-paper press release, the library adds this sentence: “The Central Library Plan is a unique public-private partnership made possible with generous support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, the New York City Council, the Empire State Development Corporation, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Stephen A. Schwarzman, Abby S. Milstein and Howard P. Milstein, and an anonymous donor.” The allocation from the city explains the politicians’ names, and the Milsteins’ names are accounted for by their gift for the Bryant Park storage facility. By also listing Schwarzman and an anonymous donor, the library seems to be suggesting that it considers their gifts, too, to be sources of the CLP’s financing. If you add up all these sources of money, you get a sum twice as large as what the library claims that the CLP will cost. I doubt there’s anything very fishy here. I suspect that the conflicting accounts mean only that the library plans to spend down its endowment—to which the sale of the Annex, the sale of the Donnell, Schwarzman’s gift, and other gifts have contributed—in order to pay for the reconstruction, and then plan to replenish the endowment by selling the Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business properties. One last financial note: In its press release, the library now concedes that “we expect the actual budget to be somewhat higher” than the previous estimate of $300 million.)
Asked about modifications to the building, including the possibility of an entrance directly into Bryant Park, Marx said that the cloak room at the north entrance of the building, on 42nd Street, would be “opened up.” He said that four revisions to the building would require approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission: replacing a stretch of wall on the south side of the building with a new loading dock, installing a new air conditioning unit on the roof, converting two windows on the west façade into emergency fire exits, and modifying several windows so that they could open during a fire if necessary. As for a Bryant Park entrance, Marx said he personally thought it would be a great idea, but that the library had decided against it, so as not to compromise the western façade and in order to be “mindful of the park’s interests.”
Someone asked what lessons the library had learned from Hurricane Sandy. Had the library taken sufficient precautions against flooding? Would it acquire a new emergency generator? Yes, Marx replied, the library will have a new emergency generator. As for flooding, he noted that the Bryant Park Stack Extension is built on the foundations of a 19th-century water reservoir, whose retaining walls are 16 or 17 inches thick. An inspection after Sandy discovered no leakage. Flooding from above is not a danger, either, he said; sea levels would have to rise 55 feet before they could reach Bryant Park.
A final questioner asked why the library couldn’t simply improve the air conditioning in the stacks. Marx asserted that it would cost $50 to $75 million to bring the air conditioning up to the level the library wants, and that the stacks would in that case remain vulnerable to fire.
I’m still thinking about my position in this debate. As I’ve said, I’m grateful that the library has agreed to store more books under Bryant Park. Nonetheless, I still wish that the library were leaving the 42nd Street building alone and instead doing a stand-alone renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library, as I suggested in the spring. There’s a hint that such an alternative might be more feasible than ever. In October, the New York Times reported that Mayor Bloomberg is pushing to re-zone midtown so as to allow for more skyscrapers. The Mid-Manhattan Library is just outside the border of the proposed new zone, and if the city were to draw the new perimeter so as to include the MML, the library might be able to pull off on that site the sort of bold but money-making construction project that the Museum of Modern Art managed a few years ago. In any case, even if the CLP now has too much political momentum to be stopped, there’s something to be said for continuing to pay attention and for trying to hold the library to its promise to sustain its research mission.
I’m not terribly impressed with Foster’s architectural plans, but in his defense, it should be said that the constraints on his design are considerable. As Foster himself noted, the space of the Rose reading room is comparable to the space below it, so one way to imagine the new space is to stand in the Rose and consider how the space downstairs differs from it. The windows in the lower space are narrower than those in the Rose and admit less light. There are windows on two sides of the Rose reading room but only on one side of the space below. The windows in the Rose are raised well above the street, but those in the space below look out onto the backs of two restaurants that abut the library, blocking a considerable portion of the view, especially on the southern half of the western facade. The Rose has only one floor, but four levels will be sandwiched into the space below. The Rose is an echoey space, but visitors to it are asked to be quiet. Will noise be a problem in the space below?
Foster and Marx emphasized in their remarks that the new space will be built so as to be easily repurposed if the library’s needs change. That flexibility is prudent, but it’s disappointing that Foster’s design gives little sense of his vision of the library’s needs now. What function or functions is this form meant to serve? At the press conference, it seemed to me telling that Foster hadn’t considered the problem of how to bring books into the Rose reading room. More than a few people I’ve spoken with have likened the new space to an airport lobby, perhaps because it’s so little shaped by the purposes that people have when they come to a library. Where’s the check-out? Where do you return books? Where will visitors access the catalog? If catalogs are not going to be a first resort, will there be other ways for visitors to discover what the library has to offer? It’s been pointed out to me by several people that in the architectural renderings released by Foster, multiple copies of books are displayed on shelves face out, as they sometimes appear in bookstores, rather than single copies spine out, as they almost always appear in libraries. (See the image detail at the top of this post for an example, which displays a Norman Foster monograph next to one on the New York Public Library’s original architects, Carrère and Hastings.) Will music and film be lent, or only books? Will there be computers for people who don’t own one, and if so, where? Are there going to be places in the new library where book groups can meet, or where job applicants can learn how to shape a resume? Where’s the information desk? Which shelves will be for ready reference, and which for books to be checked out, and how close will the two kinds of shelves be to desks? Or will the library encourage visitors to use online reference sources? Where are the librarians, and how will the design shape their interaction with patrons? I understand that preliminary sketches can’t be expected to answer all these questions, but it seems fair to expect the general principles with which these problems will be approached.
This morning, I attended a press event at the New York Public Library for the unveiling of Norman Foster’s architectural plans. The library administrators’ proposal to replace the bookshelves of the 42nd Street research branch with a new circulating library has been controversial, and I was curious to know what the proposed renovation actually looked like. I’m still mulling over my impressions, but I want to convey two things, quickly (and to post my photos of the architectural model, which doesn’t seem to be available on the library’s website).
The first is that I am deeply grateful to the administrators and trustees of the library for agreeing to double the library’s storage capacity under Bryant Park. Library trustee Abby Milstein and her husband Howard Milstein gave $8 million to the library in September, for the purpose of outfitting the second, currently unused level of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, soon to be renamed in the Milsteins’ honor. The library administrators’ original plans called for a reduction of onsite book storage from 4.5 million to 1.5 million volumes, but thanks to the Milsteins’ gift, the reduction will only be to 3 million. I appreciate the generosity of the Milsteins and the flexibility of the library’s trustees and administrators.
The second is that I remain a skeptic of the proposed renovation nonetheless (though out of a recognition of personal limits, probably a less vocal one than I was last spring). Books used to arrive in the Rose Reading Room via an elevator under the delivery desk in the center of the room. Squinting at the architectural model this morning, I saw that the space under the delivery desk is now empty, so during the question-and-answer period, I asked how books would arrive under the new plan. There’s currently a conveyor belt that brings books from the Bryant Park Stack Extension into the library building, and in reply to my question, Marx said that a second conveyor belt would be added to it, and a new elevator built somewhere on the south end of the building. The architectural historian Charles Warren followed up my question with a few others: Would the new elevator be put where the Art and Architecture reading room is now located? No, it was to be to one side, probably in the southeast corner of the Rose room. How would books get from the southeast corner of the Rose to the delivery desk? There might be room to build yet another conveyor belt in the crawl space between the floor of the Rose Reading Room and the drop ceiling of the new circulating library. Was this crawl space large enough for a person to walk in it? No. Then how would the conveyor be repaired if it broke?
Marx and Foster assured Warren that they would be able to come up with an answer, and I have no doubt that they can and will. But it seemed telling that getting the books into the reading room was an afterthought, a detail not yet worked through. In Carrère and Hastings’s original plans for the 42nd Street building, the concern was central. The whole structure was designed around it. I look forward to reading what others, especially architecture critics, make of Foster’s plans.
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.
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.
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:
- Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library;
- Charles Petersen, an n+1 associate editor and author of “Lions in Winter”;
- Joan Scott, the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and the organizer of a petition to ask the NYPL to reconsider its Central Library Plan (CLP);
- Robert Darnton, a historian who oversees Harvard’s libraries and is the author of “In Defense of the New York Public Library”;
- David Nasaw, a professor of history at CUNY;
- and Mark Alan Hewitt, an architect and the co-author of a two-volume study of the original builders of the NYPL’s 42nd Street building.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
You can now sign online the petition asking the New York Public Library to reconsider its $350 million plan to remove 3 million books from its 42nd Street building. The petition has been organized by Joan Scott of the Institute of Advanced Study, and the names of the 700 or so early signers are also online.
The journal n+1 and the New York Institute of the Humanities are hosting a panel debate on the future of the library next Tuesday, May 22, from 6:30 to 8:30pm, at the New School’s Theresa Lang Community Center, 55 West 13th Street, on the second floor. The moderator will be Eric Banks, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, and participants will include Joan Scott, David Nasaw, Charles Petersen, and others. A top administrator from the library has also been invited to participate.
As for the research-level books, most of them are leaving. Of the 5 million books currently housed at the main building, only 2 million will remain. The chance that a book you want will be in Manhattan will drop from around 70 to around 20 percent. The administration says the standard turnaround time for books from the New Jersey facility will be twenty-four hours. This strains credulity. The small number of books already housed at Princeton typically take closer to three days to make it to Manhattan, and the new system will be dealing with many more books and requests.
In 2008, the trustees and administrators of the New York Public Library came up with a bold idea. The future of the e-book looked bright and the use of the library's print books had been steadily declining, so they proposed shipping at least 3 million of the 5 million books in its 42nd Street research library to storage in New Jersey. Into the vacated space, they hoped to fold the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL). The cost of the dismantling and construction looked high—the current estimate is well over $300 million—but the library expected to be able to sell the real estate occupied by MML and SIBL in order to help pay for it. The economic downturn of late 2008, however, forced the plan into cold storage.
This February, as real estate prices began to recover, they pulled the plan out of cryo. It wakes up into a different world. E-books may be a hit with readers, but at the moment few major publishers are willing to license e-books to libraries, and last year a federal judge struck down a deal that might have allowed Google Books to provide digital copies of books whose copyright owners can't be found. Until Congress passes a new copyright law—don't hold your breath for that—researchers remain dependent on ink-on-paper books, even if they prefer electronic ones. In fact, in the years since 2007, the use of ink-on-paper books at the library's 42nd Street branch has been stable and steady, according to the library's own statistics. Surprise: 2012 doesn't look quite like what the futurologists of 2008 predicted.
Is it really necessary therefore to compromise the architecture of a landmark building? Is it necessary to damage the library's research mission by drastically lowering the number of books within quick reach? I haven't been alone in wondering whether the Central Library Plan (CLP), as it's called, still makes sense. A petition is circulating that asks the library's trustees to reconsider, and it's been signed by Thomas Bender, Peter Brooks, Judith Butler, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jonathan Galassi, Anthony Heilbut, Jackson Lears, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering-Lewis Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Lorin Stein, and hundreds more. I've written previously on this blog about my doubts of the CLP's alleged merits and about my dismay at the prospect of degrading a research library into a mere book-lending service for local academics. In this post, I'd like to suggest a way out—an alternative plan.
What if the library chose to sell only one property—the site of the Science, Industry, and Business Library—but before doing so, used it as a temporary home for the Mid-Manhattan Library while that building was being renovated? I'll go into detail below, but let me say at once that I'm sure my alternative plan can easily be improved. Please consider it a rough draft. I offer it only as a means of suggesting that there must be other ways to achieve the library's goals.
What are those goals? As far as I can tell, the CLP offers three boons. First, it would upgrade the Mid-Manhattan Library, the flagship of the city's circulating libraries, which is in bad need of repair. More New Yorkers check books out from the Mid-Manhattan Library than any other branch in the system. Renovating the MML seems to me to be the best part of the CLP—maybe the only part that's unambiguously a good thing. The funding of the circulating libraries is the city's responsibility, and I doubt it's a coincidence that the amount that the city has agreed to contribute to the CLP—$150 million—is equal to the estimated stand-alone cost of renovating the Mid-Manhattan. In my opinion, spending $350 million to do a $150 million renovation isn't the way to go about it, but I do believe that the renovation is worth doing.
Second, library administrators have claimed that the CLP's consolidation of three buildings into one will save the library around $10 million a year in operating expenses. However, administrators also claim that the plan will increase the number of square feet open to the public, they haven't named any services they expect to cut, and many of the costs of operating the buildings have long been footed by the city, which reexamines its contribution to the library every budget cycle with an eye toward lowering it. It's difficult, in other words, to know how solid this benefit is likely to be. Its exact size may also depend on whether the library is able to raise enough funds for the plan so that some portion of the money realized by the real estate sales can be added to the endowment. It's worth keeping in mind, when considering this part of the benefit, that donors might be as willing to contribute to an alternative plan as they are to the CLP.
Third, the library's administrators have recently begun to say that the books stored at 42nd Street are not being well cared for and will be safer in storage in New Jersey. Indeed, the temperature, light, and humidity controls at the New Jersey facility are state of the art. There is nothing structurally wrong with the bookshelves at the heart of the 42nd Street building, though—to the contrary, they hold up the Rose reading room above them—and the library did install heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in the 1980s. Still, improved preservation conditions do constitute a benefit and are worth taking into account.
Are there ways for the library to achieve some or all of these three goods without damaging its architecture or its research mission?
An alternative path to construction
This suggestion involves a three-step plan.
1. Give SIBL a temporary home inside the 42nd Street building.
At the moment there's a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not being used to full advantage, including the Salomon room, the south wing of the second floor, the rooms that formerly housed the Slavic & Baltic and Asian & Middle Eastern divisions, and the South Court.
The Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) was conceived of as a research library when it launched a little more than a decade ago. Its research collections have been little used since, however, and much of the space is now given over to computer training and job-search assistance. A permanent home can be found for the research functions—the original nugget of SIBL—in the 42nd Street building, and a temporary home can be found there for the computer training and job-search elements of its current mission.
2. House the Mid-Manhattan Library in SIBL's old building while Mid-Manhattan is renovated.
Once the functions of SIBL have been shifted into the 42nd Street building, SIBL's building can be re-outfitted as the temporary home of the Mid-Manhattan Library for two years, the time needed for the Mid-Manhattan site to be renovated. Defenders of the CLP have expressed concern that the city will renege on its support if the CLP is tampered with in any way. I think that sells city officials short. Why wouldn't they remain willing to pay the $150 million cost of the Mid-Manhattan's renovation even if the library comes up with a different way of doing it? If zoning laws—or the political will to alter them—permit, a basement-to-rooftop renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library could add space. Maybe a little space: enough to house the computer training and job search programs formerly at SIBL. Mabye a lot: enough to lease out extra floors for commercial uses, improving the library's longterm bottom line. Even if no space can be added, a gut renovation will surely allow for a more rational use of the space in Mid-Manhattan and greater efficiencies.
3. Sell SIBL's old building.
Once the renovation of Mid-Manhattan is complete, the site of the former Science, Industry, and Business Library can be sold, and the proceeds can be added to the library's endowment. True, the library's trustees will only realize the value of selling one building, not two as in the CLP, but instead of spending $350 million, they'll only be spending $150 million plus the cost of temporarily re-outfitting SIBL. (If that cost turns out to be prohibitively high, there might be less-expensive places to house MML during its renovation. Perhaps additional floors could be rented in the building where the new Donnell is to go?) The $150 million renovation, moreover, will likely be covered by the city. Even if private donors contribute no funds at all to this alternative plan—an unlikely eventuality; are donors going to be mad at the library for having realized that ink-on-paper books are important after all?—this alternative might well result in a larger contribution to the library's endowment than the CLP could deliver. Meanwhile, after SIBL is closed, three buildings will be consolidated into two, realizing a significant portion of the operational efficiencies offered by the CLP. If you add together the alternative plan's contribution to the endowment (possibly larger than the CLP's) and its improvement of operational efficiencies (probably smaller than the CLP's), you get an impact on the library's annual bottom line comparable to that proposed by the CLP. (It's impossible, unfortunately, to do the arithmetic with any amount of precision until the library releases the numbers underlying its own calculations.)
Other ways to improve the research library
The following suggestions are stand-alones, and many could be adopted even if the library bulldozes ahead with the CLP.
1. Give every researcher who wants one a reserve shelf
Once the new Mid-Manhattan is open, job-search and computer-training programs can move into it, and there will once again be a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not used to full capacity. The CLP calls for assigning much of that space to scholars and researchers, to be used as writing spaces. That's a great idea, but I have two reservations. First, if the library continues its Marli program, which allows research books to be checked out, there will eventually be few serious researchers who want to work onsite. The NYPL will come to resemble university libraries, whose users expect the finding of books to be a chore and therefore hoard books in compensation. Serious researchers will visit to pick their books up, but there won't be much reason for them to stick around. After all, the advantages of working onsite in a research library—reliable, nearly instant access to the collection—will have been lost. My second reservation: assigning special places to a limited number of writer-researchers is in conflict with the public mission of the New York Public Library. The library already does have special writing spaces, of course: the Wertheim room is for anyone working on a long-term project, the Allen room for anyone with a signed book contract, and the Cullman Center is the home of a competitive fellowship. But the Cullman Center, which awards a stipend, only admits a few people each year, and there are long waiting lists for the Allen and Wertheim rooms.
Meanwhile, the affordances of these rooms aren't really optional to serious research at the NYPL any more. Supporters of the CLP have accused critics like me of failing to realize that offsite storage is inevitable, given the explosion in the number of titles published and the finite nature of Manhattan real estate. That's not true in my own case. I recognize that offsite storage is inevitable. In fact, I've been working with and around the NYPL's offsite system for more than a decade. It's a real pain, but it's become a fact of life, and I've come to realize that the best weapon against the delay and inefficiency caused by offsite storage is a reserve shelf. If you can order a few dozen books on your topic from offsite and hold them for a month or two, the damage is minimized. Upstairs in the Rose reading room, though, a researcher can only put three books on reserve for a week at a time. Three books! I've worked under those conditions. It's very hard to do serious research three books at a time, and it's nearly impossible if, the moment you return the fourth book, it boards a truck to New Jersey.
It would be easy to remedy the problem. If the library's administrators really wanted to, they could do so tomorrow. Sit in the Rose reading room and look up: there's a balcony running all along the room's interior, currently closed to the public. This balcony now houses, among other things, the black volumes of the NYPL's printed catalog (still sometimes useful, but there's an accessible copy in the catalog room next-door) and the green volumes of the National Union Catalog (oudated and immensely bulky, and crying out to be sent to New Jersey). In other words, the shelves on the balcony are prime real estate, not well deployed. What if the stairs to it were opened to the public, and what if the shelves were cleared, numbered, and assigned on a rotating basis to researchers? It should be a "permeable" reserve, like the system currently in place in the Allen, Wertheim, and Cullman rooms: that is, if someone else in the library wants a book on your shelf, a librarian will fetch it for them, unless you happen to be reading it at exactly that moment. When you want the book again, you just ask for it back. What if it were possible to arrange online for the setup of such a shelf, a day or a week in advance of visiting the library, and ask for books to be delivered to the shelf in advance as well? Then a researcher would be able to hit the ground running. Probably a large number of people would sign up for the shelves when they debuted, but if you set the shelves up to expire automatically if no new books have been requested after, say, a month, they'd turn over quickly and I doubt that the library would run out of shelf space. Since no books on these reserve shelves would be leaving the Rose reading room, and all users of them would be in an open, well-patrolled space, there would be no security issues beyond those that already obtain in the Rose.
2. Give local faculty and graduate students special working areas.
What to do then with the smaller rooms on the second floor of the 42nd Street building? Please consider this element of my proposal very speculative. Despite my concern about the Marli program, it does allow scholars who go through NYPL access to Columbia and NYU's collections, and it would be nice to preserve that access. The trouble is that Columbia and NYU share with the rest of the human race the regrettable trait of selfishness. What's in it for them? Their faculty, as members of the public, are already able to use every service that NYPL provides, so in exchange for granting NYPL users access to their collections, the current bargain gives them something more: the right to take NYPL books out of the building. As I've explained before, I fear that in the long term the ability to take books out of the research collection will alter the culture of the research library for the worse.
What if, instead, NYPL were to offer its Marli collaborators something different? Maybe they could offer some of those beautiful rooms sitting empty in the south wing of the library's second floor, for example. What if, in exchange for Marli access, NYPL granted Columbia's and NYU's faculty and graduate students special reading rooms with reserve shelves, much like the Allen and Wertheim rooms today? No books would leave the building. As elsewhere, the reserve shelves would be permeable. There would be privacy in these rooms, but since the users would have been vetted by their home universities, the privacy wouldn't create security issues any greater than those that currently obtain in the Allen and Wertheim rooms. I see the obvious objection: it's hardly in accordance with the NYPL's democratic, public mission to give away space to private institutions. This is a fair objection, but the benefit that Marli offers to the public—access to Columbia and NYU's research collections for free—is substantial, and I think you could argue that the bargain would be worth it. Moreover, it's in the NYPL's interest, in the long term, to cultivate working relationships with scholars at local institutions, and such an agreement might go far to solidifying those relationships. Would Columbia and NYU go for it? Would they be willing to let NYPL's users check out their books in exchange for special rooms at the NYPL? I don't know, and that's one reason this suggestion is highly speculative. (For the record: It's been half a dozen years since I taught at Columbia, and I would not personally benefit from this suggestion.)
A further thought: The most avid users of the Marli program are the graduate students and faculty of CUNY, and CUNY has a special claim of the library's resources, because it's a creation of the city, whose support for the library is old and deep. I'd therefore argue that CUNY faculty and graduate students, too, should be given a dedicated reading room in the library with reserve shelves.
In short: Mend Marli, don't end it. Instead of giving collaborating institutions the right to remove books from the building, give their faculty and grad students a special reason to come to the building and work there.
3. Activate the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension.
If the library's administrators refuse to alter the CLP, the least they can do is mitigate its impact. When the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) was first built, space was dug, and concrete poured, for two floors. Only one of the floors was ever outfitted for use; it's now estimated to hold 1.2 million to 1.5 million books. If the library goes through with the CLP, the number of books onsite will drop from 5 million to 2 million. But if the second floor of BPSE were outfitted, the drop would only be from 5 million to 3.2 million.
If the 42nd Street building left intact, the second floor's state-of-the-art preservation conditions could become the home of any materials currently in the stacks and considered especially vulnerable. (Of course, vulnerable items could be shifted into the already existing floor, too. And there are other potential remedies to the administrators' concern about heat, light, and humidity in the stacks: the HVAC system could be upgraded, and UV filters could be added to the west-facing windows.)
Since I'm blue-skying, I'll throw out one more idea. What if the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension were Mansueto-ized?
4. Experiment with new shelving algorithms.
In the days before computers, a book's call number told you where it was. If you had the call number, the way to find it was to look on a map and see where books with that call number were shelved. A librarian could move a whole array of books with the same call number, so long as she updated the maps, but she couldn't move a single book from one place to another unless she altered its call number—or else she'd lose it. In preparation for the CLP, the library has at last undertaken to put bar codes on all the books in its collection. Once the bar-coding is complete, it will for the first time be possible to separate a book's call number from its location. The bar code on a book will become its most important reference point, and it will be possible to place the book anywhere so long as the computer catalog is told its new location.
The library is already taking advantage of this separability. If you browse through books in the JFD call range, you'll see that although most books published more than twenty years ago have already left the building in anticipation of the CLP's implementation, books with neighboring call numbers that were published more recently are being allowed to stay. This book-by-book individuation is only possible because the computer catalog is being relied on to remember which books are where. The call number alone no longer tells you.
Here's another possibility: Suppose that whenever an offsite book is returned, the computer catalog remembers the date and time of its return and categorizes it for a year as being stored on a special range of shelves in the 42nd Street building with a name like "Ready Recall." As offsite books are returned, the physical books are added to the Ready Recall shelf in the order in which they are returned, and a librarian marks the end of the day by inserting a divider of some kind into the bookshelf. If anyone later wants a book in Ready Recall, the computer spits out the date and time of the book's last return, which tells the librarian where in the Ready Recall shelf it is. After a year, any book still on the Ready Recall shelf in its original position is returned to offsite storage, and the catalog is updated to change its location from "Ready Recall" to "Offsite." But in the meantime, any offsite book used in the past year is available onsite, quickly.
It might be that books requested from offsite are rarely requested again—in which case this suggestion of mine isn't worth the bother. But I suspect that books requested from offsite are more likely than other offsite books to be requested again—in which case my suggestion would minimize to-and-fro and reduce delivery delays.
5. Allow NYPL staff to speak freely.
Perhaps the most upsetting discovery I've made in the course of blogging about the CLP is that the New York Public Library powerfully discourages its staff from speaking freely. I did not expect, when I started voicing my concerns, to be receiving emails from library staff members who explained that they were writing under pseudonyms, from email accounts that they earnestly hoped were untraceable. I've been told that departing staff members are often required to sign gag orders in order to receive their severance packages. The library could take a small step toward opening up—humanizing, even—its management culture by unilaterally declaring that it considers all such gag orders unenforceable. To free up the staff currently working at the library, and to tap the full value of their intellectual capacity, the administrators will have to do more than make declarations. They will have to work for years to regain their trust.
Please keep in mind, as debate continues, that the library's culture of secrecy has made it hard for me and other critics to find answers to basic questions about the CLP. I repeatedly asked library administrators to break down for me where they expected the savings from consolidation to come from, to no avail. I repeatedly asked them to clarify how they're counting the books in the building, also to no avail. I expect that some of the suggestions that I've made in this post will turn out to be impossible to implement because of facts that the library has chosen not to disclose.
6. Set up a permanent advisory committee of scholars and writers.
If Columbia University had proposed removing the stacks at the core of its Butler library, or if Harvard had proposed the same for its Widener library, the faculty would have revolted. But the people in charge of those libraries would never have made such proposals, because they're in touch with the scholars who use them. When librarians at those institutions need to move books offsite—and I repeat that I understand that offsite storage is a necessity, for as much of the history of the printed book as remains to be lived through—they consult the professors expert in each field before they do so. Rather late in the game, the NYPL is trying to make such a consultation now, through the advisory panel that I was briefly a member of. But my own experience with that panel suggests to me that the administrators aren't entirely sure whether they're conducting a conversation or a public-relations exercise, and in any case, an ad hoc panel convened in a crisis is inadequate. The library needs a permanent advisory panel to keep its administrators and trustees in touch with the researchers who use it. How many members it should have, how long they should serve, whether outside organizations like the American Council of Learned Societies or the American Historical Association should appoint the members—these are questions to be worked out by people who know more about such entities than I do. All I know is that the library needs such a panel, and that the panel should have a measure of self-governance and a guarantee of free expression.
This morning Ann Thornton, the director of the New York Public Library, telephoned to ask me not to attend next Thursday's meeting of the scholars' and writers' advisory panel. She said that the library's administrators felt that I had chosen to act as a journalist, that at the next meeting the panel would decide whether to permit journalistic coverage of its proceedings, and that the administrators intended to disclose circulation numbers to the panel next week and wanted them to feel they could speak freely. If the panel decided to admit journalists, then I might be invited back.
I thanked her for letting me know.