The New York Public Library Central Library Plan and its Critics

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Polly Thistlethwaite, Acting Chief Librarian at the City University of New York Graduate Center Library.

NYPL made public its general plans for Reimagining the 42nd St. Schwarzman Building (now called the Central Library Plan or CLP) in February 2012 following December 2011 publication of Scott Sherman’s alarm in the Nation. Sherman condemns the plan as costly and ill-conceived. He alleges repeatedly and sensationally (e.g. on the WNYC Leonard Lopate show) that NYPL seeks to construct “a glorified internet café” to replace the closed book stack below ground level. Sherman’s compatriot Caleb Crain also blogs against nearly everything the CLP represents, with special focus on the MaRLI pilot program. Crain fears that loaning NYPL research library books to vetted scholars may someday deprive someone of quick onsite access to a desired title. NYPL’s new lending practice is undemocratic, he argues, on that account. NYPL’s President Tony Marx has responded to CLP criticism on Leonard Lopate’s show, in the Huffington Post, and in Inside Higher Education. There is new detail in Frequently Asked Questions about the CLP on the NYPL site.

Critics express anxiety about the CLP’s return of the SIBL and Mid Manhattan libraries (and their readers) to the NYPL Schwarzman Building. Moving books from the NYPL book stack to the New Jersey RECAP repository, critics fear, means books will be only inconveniently retrieved for on-site examination in Manhattan. Writers seeking texts and solitude in the Main Library will be forced to mingle with the non-writerly public under conditions unconducive to writerly activity. Scholarship will fail. Novels will not be written. Civilization will suffer.

These are visceral reactions to shifts in scholarship already well underway. Readers steadily consult a variety of digital and physical formats, and readers and scholars themselves intersect and overlap in non-exclusive combinations. Libraries must reconfigure to deliver and to preserve a changing mix of media to a changing mix of readers and scholars. Google Books, Hathi Trust, and other world repositories offer growing caches of resources already and perpetually available online. Digital delivery allows anybody to get more, faster and cheaper, than from print-only, building-bound physical volumes. Souped up printers like the Espresso Book Machine can supply print copies for those who want them. NYPL and academic interlibrary loan systems can, with adequate support, turn around requests for PDF articles and book chapters within hours. It is impossible to retain every book for retrieval for onsite only use from a closed, environmentally unstable book stack, and at the same time perpetuate and avail a first-rate research collection.

Leading research libraries, including NYPL, already hold a substantial portion of their holdings off-site (also see the British Library, The Center for Research Libraries (CRL), Harvard, Columbia, NYU). No research library, no matter how magnificent, is able to collect everything. There is too much. All research institutions rely on resource-sharing and lending networks; retrieval and delivery systems are crucial to even the largest collections. The CLP adds an open, circulating collection where there is currently none. Selected special collections and heavily-used scholarly resources remain at the Main Library. Repeatedly requested works stay onsite within reach by NYPL scholars. In addition, the CLP improves retrieval service for every reader. Online retrieval requests made before 2.30p.m. are promised by opening the next day, an improvement over the onsite paging service in place now. Rather than doubt the NYPL’s capacity to provide this delivery, we must insist on it. Weekend retrieval is important, and NYPL says Saturday deliveries are possible. But to insist that all scholarly materials be retained in Midtown, just in case promised deliveries fail, is to subvert the mission of the NYPL and to undermine real improvements in space and service.

The MaRLI program affords CUNY faculty and graduate students unprecedented access to local research collections. About 1/3 of MaRLI registrants are CUNY affiliates, the largest class of NYPL registrants. MaRLI offers longer loan periods than CUNY now provides, and the prospect of resource-sharing among NYU, Columbia, and NYPL libraries and their faculty and grads is the most democratic gesture under discussion. Should the institutions agree, a request for a NYPL title unavailable from RECAP could be satisfied for an identical copy from the NYU or Columbia cache. CUNY researchers would continue to tap CUNY libraries and a substantial Interlibrary Loan network. Books are durable objects intended to be loaned, pored over, and shared. With the exception of certain singular, fragile, or expensive titles, books collected by the NYPL research collections are not irreplaceable. A book’s value is realized only if it is read. To encase a book, to leave it undisturbed, to restrict its distribution, is to deny its purpose. Books are built to circulate.

CUNY scholars will gain from the CLP call for expanded 2nd floor scholarly study space and longer hours (til 11 p.m. – better than the current 8 p.m.). NYPL’s Wertheim Study hosts around 300 vetted scholars, 1/3 of whom are CUNY grads or faculty, and a smaller number of Cullman Fellows and Allen Room scholars. Tourists and branch library borrowers will not be herded from the lower levels toward them. The CLP offers scholars and writers more room and more time to work alone or together, but different classes of library users needn’t mingle unless scholars decide to break for coffee or tourists put cameras down to settle in the Rose Reading Room. Thankfully the NYPL, like every other library, will offer vended caffeine shots, but the CLP doesn’t replace the reading rooms with an internet café. That scholars mix it up with the hoi polloi, just a little, in a few spaces, is hardly a detriment – it’s a gift to scholarly life. The New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan, embracing a future mix of readers and reading material, promises that the world’s premier urban library will continue to shape and reflect the city’s cultural capital.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

12 thoughts on “The New York Public Library Central Library Plan and its Critics”

  1. Thanks for this interesting post – a great contribution to a difficult debate.

    For many critics, remote storage is the problem (which seems a harder claim to support than usual, given that the books in the research collection are not only closed stacks, they aren’t classified, so browsing is not an issue of any kind and waiting for delivery is already built in).

    My concern is that closing two large circulating libraries and trying to accommodate those public needs in a research library is problematic – not because it mixes purposes or classes of people with different needs so much as that it squeezes everyone, because library real estate in Manhattan is too valuable to be open to the public.

    I’m sure there’s more to this than the desire to sell two properties in mid-Manhattan, and maybe it will all be brilliant in the end, but I used to use all three of those libraries, and losing two of them (and no doubt quite a few of the staff who worked there) saddens me.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment.
    The difficulty of this issue indicates how much New York and the world’s researchers cherish the NYPL.

    I have heard Tony Marx say that the closed stack area below the Main NYPL building constitutes the 2nd largest indoor space in NYC — space that the CPL proposes to make this stack public and browsable.

    The 2008 Donnell branch closing (across the street from the Museum of Modern Art) still stings for film fans and neighborhood residents. Happily, the Donnell is intended to reopen in some part of the same location someday, a condition of sale as I understand it.

    The Mid-Manhattan (MM) building, like Donnell before it, is in serious disrepair. The sale of the MM building and the coop shares the nearby Science, Industry & Business Library (SIBL) (lovely space with considerably less traffic than MM) will garner income to support both collections and personnel. NYPL plans no layoffs with the MM and SIBL closures. Hope that’s true; NYPL research libraries have experienced something like 20% personnel attrition (retirements, voluntary departures) during the recession, but no layoffs.

  3. I too wish to express my concern over the closing of the other two branches, especially the Mid-town Manhattan branch. That branch is highly convenient space of human dimensions. The CPL is beautiful, historic, and way too large and impersonal. I adore sitting in the Mid Manhattan branch and sharing tables with all walks of life. At the CPL I suspect it will become over crowded and nasty because it’s so much larger a space. That and the resentment of scholars will be unparalled. Sure books will still be written, civilization shall not crumble, but inconvenience patrons enough and they’ll select another library system to patronize.

  4. As a former employee, I was saddened by the turn of events in recent years concerning New York Public Library and its intention to change the very fabric that was for many New Yorker’s, a mecca for self-learning. NYPL has always suffered from this notion of “secrecy” ever since I was employed there back in 1973. The upcoming mega-million makeover, the closing of several key mid-town libraries like Donnell; the laying off of many librarians with little or no in-depth explanations of NYPL’s future plans leads me to wonder just how City of New York administrators tolerate this kind of action. That money talks is obvious-but at whose expense?
    There was a time for many of us who actually live and work in New York felt a great pleasure in visiting some of our ‘treasures’ (libraries, museums, and theatre) here in the City. It would appear that the powers-that-be- are only interested in how much money tourism can bring into our City since it appears that as “native New Yorkers” many of these treasures are either charging exorbitant entrance fees, or the crowds are just too thick to traverse.
    What will happen to the many seminars, and workshops given by NYPL? And what about the people who are working in the trenches? Where do they go since those making these decisions may be the ones left behind to run this new flagship library? What voice do we now have when our own Public Library appears to have turned its back on us?

  5. Polly, you make the argument somewhat more effectively than Anthony Marx does, but I am still baffled why this radical plan is needed. Moving a couple of million books to New Jersey may serious research a little harder or a lot harder; we won’t know for a couple of years. Don’t be shocked, though, if NYPL puts a lot of resources into rapid turnaround times in the beginning, then pulls back and degrades service over time.

    There are problems with the Central Library Plan besides any impact on the work of someone like Caleb Crain or Edmund Morris. I work with college students mainly. They tend to be unsophisticated, even sheltered, if you can believe it. But sometimes one of the more ambitious ones could use a book or two that CUNY doesn’t own, but NYPL does. Going to the research library is already intimidating for a first-time user. If the CLP goes through, our students will now have to request the materials they need and show up on a later day. They’re often not great at time management, and this will be another hurdle to jump over, if they don’t give up instead. It will diminish the value of the research library as a substitute — for some of our best students — for what college students at Columbia or NYU take for granted. And that’s a shame.

    Another issue that you don’t mention is the way in which the CLP would pour scarce resources into the building at 42nd & Fifth, at the expense of the neighborhoods. To pay for the CLP, the NYPL is scrapping plans for regional libraries in Upper Manhattan and on Staten Island, similar to the one just off Fordham Road in the Bronx. The Bronx Library Center seems like a success to me, and if providing internet access to working people is the goal, then it seems that the need is in Washington Heights and Inwood, more than on Fifth Avenue in midtown.

    But the Bronx, Washington Heights, Staten Island — these are unsexy locales, aren’t they? If you want to create buzz, radiate glitz, and wow tycoons, you need to do whatever you do somewhere in Manhattan below 96th Street. And I’m afraid that this attitude is a lot of what motivates the Central Library Plan.

  6. I think it will be great for people/readers at all stages of life to see real lifelong learning (young children, senior citizens, students, researchers) at the CPL, where they can connect with others in groups, and work in quiet spaces as appropriate. Libraries have always served people with all sorts of information needs. And, there is already a great new children’s space there, as well as space for serious studying. Meanwhile, as for access to print material, this can still be maintained through interlibrary loan networks, and regional depositories in New Jersey, IF these are funded,managed and staffed as priorities, and not as peripheral services. People can order items online, and then use them at NYPL or, for interlibrary loans, they can even check items out from NYPL or their local library. The bottom line for libraries and librarians is connecting people and information and the more people the better!

  7. NYPL board member Anthony Grafton just published a piece in the New York Review of Books that makes a compelling budget argument in favor of the plan. It sounds like the plan to remake a Mid-Manhattan library as a somewhat self-enclosed institution within the central library building would help it retain that intimacy that commenter Benjamin Franz advocates for. Grafton also raises an interesting point about the finite amount of underground shelving space below Bryant Park and about the outdated preservation controls in that space. Hal Grossman’s point about how the branch library system would lose funding and attention, though, is interesting. I don’t know enough about NYPL budgets to know how efforts to move the CLP plan would negatively impact the branch system, but I do know that historically the branch libraries have long felt like the poor relations in the NYPL system (all the more reason to earmark any donations you make to NYPL as being for the benefit of the branch libraries). I’m cautiously optimistic that this plan will be a good thing even though I am worried with each passing year that the city is less and less interested in supporting its public libraries.

  8. The Darnton piece in NYRB is excellent, and I would highly recommend it as a sane, reasoned contribution to this debate. The NYPL is facing the same issues that all research libraries deal with — how do you enable access to potentially unlimited information resources on a limited budget, and with limited facilities? Thank you, Polly, for this post — the MaRLI program seems like a bold move forward, and I hope it will provide a model for other research libraries that struggle with the cultural change to consortial agreements.

  9. I found the Darnton piece rather condescending. His opinion that critics of the CLP are shrill, yet “deserving of respect” is typical. I’d like to recommend another article, “Lions in Winter” by Charles Peterson, in the current issue of n+1. You can find it at:

    Peterson has a good sense of the huge unknowns that we live with when it comes to how information will be stored, transmitted, and accessed in the years to come. He’s also right on target when he attacks the notion that getting more people in and out of the building must make the library more democratic:

    “The main building is in effect the university library for every local student, teacher, and professor who isn’t at NYU or Columbia. That’s a strong claim to a democratic purpose.

    This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be a large and attractive circulating branch at the center of Midtown.”

    He also spells out how Mid-Manhattan could be rebuilt without gutting the Central Library’s role as the world’s most open research library.

    There’s a lot more in Peterson’s article, including a fine discussion of the undemocratic, business-oriented way in which the NYPL makes decisions and tries to market them, along with the culture of fear it’s created among its librarians.

    I can’t recommend this piece too highly. And there’s not a shrill note in it.

  10. Pingback: Save the NYPL?

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