• Wall Street Journal: Undertaking Its Destruction, by Ada Louise Huxtable, December 3, 2012.
• New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.“There is no more important landmark building in New York than the New York Public Library, known to New Yorkers simply as the 42nd Street Library, one of the world's greatest research institutions. Completed in 1911 . . . . it is an architectural masterpiece. Yet it is about to undertake its own destruction. The library is on a fast track to demolish the seven floors of stacks just below the magnificent, two-block-long Rose Reading Room for a $300 million restructuring referred to as the Central Library Plan.”
• The Committee to Save The New York Public Library: Press Release, March 7, 2012.“this potential Alamo of engineering, architecture and finance would be irresponsible. . . a not-uncommon phenomenon among cultural boards, a form of architectural Stockholm syndrome.”
• The Committee to Save The New York Public Library: The Truth About the Central Library Plan, March 7, 2012.This detailed analysis questions many of the Library's assumptions and calls for public debate about the CLP's impact on the Research Library and its users, on branch libraries throughout the city, and on the financial well-being of the library itself.
The plan is highly controversial:
• It will be hugely expensive, costing a minimum of $300 million (probably much more), of which $150 million will come from New York City taxpayers. There is great concern that the Library's focus on a highly-complex construction project will absorb desperately-needed funds which might otherwise pay for renovations of branch libraries, and replenish slashed curatorial and acquisitions budgets.
• It will radically reduce the space available for the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL.
• It will threaten the 42nd Street Library's status as one of the world's great research libraries.
• It will threaten the architectural integrity of the landmarked 42nd Street building.
• It does not take into consideration more efficient and less destructive alternatives, such as combining SIBL and the Mid-Manhattan into a rehabilitated and expanded building on the Mid-Manhattan site.
There is a whole section about how in facilitating these real estate deals for developers, “The Library Has Chosen the Most Expensive Option.”• New York Post: Opinion- Real-estate fiction, by Nicole Gelinas, July 8, 2013.
The library — apparently convinced it combines the deal-making savvy of Donald Trump and engineering expertise of the MTA — is embarking on a Big Dig beneath Midtown.• City Journal: The New York Public Library’s Uncertain Future- A proposed renovation threatens one of the world’s great research institutions, by Stephen Eide, Autumn 2013.
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Yet the library didn’t negotiate risk-sharing with the city on cost overruns, which means the city is at least vaguely worried that the price may spiral. Indeed, Marx has acknowledged that the project has no firm cost ceiling yet.
Another unsettling sign: Faced with criticism of construction drawings the library released last year, Marx said, “The rendering was never intended to be a design, it is not a design.”
“This is about improving services for our users—the public,” says David Offensend, the library’s chief operating officer. That claim seems dubious, at least for researchers. Even under the brightest scenario, the likely result would be an institution marginally more cost-effective but significantly downgraded from the research standard it has set during its illustrious history.• Noticing New York: Drastically Reducing Manhattan’s Main Library Space (At City Expense), The NYPL Was Only Just Recently Increasing Its Space (At City Expense), by Michael D. D. White, November 21, 2013.
The structure took 12 years and $9 million to build, and it incorporated 14 varieties of marble—including some from the same Greek quarry that supplied the Parthenon. The building’s unique features include . . . the seven stories and 88 miles of cast-iron and steel bookshelves, closed to the public, which occupy most of the building’s west side and hold up the Rose Main Reading Room.
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The research library, meanwhile, quickly became one of the best in the world, in the same class as France’s Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Museum.
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. . . combining research and branch services in the same facility amounts to administrative folly.
In times of austerity, it’s generally a good idea for organizations to combine operations in the name of cost savings and enhanced efficiency. That’s not the case here. Some functions are simply at odds. As a petition signed by Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, and hundreds of other scholars and writers puts it: “NYPL will lose its standing as a premier research institution . . .
The last expansion of the NYPL’s Manhattan space was in 2002 with the completion of a city-paid-for expansion of the Central Reference Library that boosted the size of the Main Building by about 8%, 42,222 square feet, because, as the then President of the NYPL said, additional space was needed.
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Building up library space at taxpayer expense until 2002 and then selling it starting with Donnell in 2007?: There's a startling lesson in how fast ambitions can pivot.
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The consolidating shrinkage of the Central Library Plan would shrink current space down to just 569,222 square feet, significantly less than the 763,000 figure for the late 80s and early 90s and certainly less than the recently envisioned 1,082,222 square feet.
|From 1987 to an envisioned 2015 (with an implemented Central Library Plan), total actual midtown Manhattan Library destination space actual and planned, first going up and then going lower than ever before|
What do the New York Public Library Trustees know about what is going on their watch? . . . .Do they have any idea of the number of books they are making available to the public, and that the number of books in Manhattan’s most important libraries is significantly shrinking? The indications are they’re in the dark.. .City Council budget hearing that his goal was to have "capacity" for 4.2 million books under the consolidating shrinkage of the Central Library Plan, but that the NYPL didn't yet know if they would achieve even that. He was also very careful to be clear that he was only stating the "capacity" they were hoping for, not the actual number of books that would be kept. Is it fair to guess that the actual number of books ultimately kept could be as low as only 3.5 to 4 million? This footnote will be updated with a link providing more information.)
. . . minutes for the last ten years of NYPL trustee meetings contain nothing about the number of books in the principal and most important libraries in Manhattan even as deals are being finagled to sell and precipitously shrink those libraries.*
• N+1 (N Plus One Magazine: Lions in Winter, (Parts One and Two), by Charles Petersen, March 7, 2012.
• Historic Districts Council: HDC’s Statement on the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, March 26, 2013.Until Congress acts, if it ever does, the best that Google will legally be able to provide when users request orphan books is “snippet view,”* the annoying feature that lets you search through a book and see a line or two whenever a particular word occurs, but nothing else . . “Snippet view” is . . . . of little use to researchers without access to the book itself. (*Even “Snippet View” is currently being challenged by the Authors Guild in court.. . . )
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But even if Congress were to act tomorrow. . . the availability of digitized books to the point where one could be confident of finding what one needed, in the way one can still be confident upon arriving at the New York Public Library, is still some years away. . . .probably closer to twenty.
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Norman Foster’s preliminary plans have not yet been made public, but looking at some of Foster’s other projects you can begin to imagine what the new library will look like. The constraints of the space greatly limit what will be possible:
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Foster’s design may well call for the demolition of not just the stacks but of much of the marble facade that currently stands on the Bryant Park side of the building, and whose windows and marble pillars are exactly aligned with the rows of steel stacks inside. If the stacks go, the facade is likely to go as well. In the facade’s place, we will likely see some kind of ambitious new glass entrance. . [Because of Landmarks this is not now an immediate threat but it will be a threat after conversion.]
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In response to the question “What will replace the stacks?” the library’s website says, “Books!” That’s just not true, and it’s certainly not true in the long term.
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The library’s plan is unprecedented for a reason: no other research library has eliminated the vast majority of its on-site collection because no library can predict what books the next person through the door will request—and no researcher can know what books she will need until she begins to read, and sees where the footnotes, and her curiosity, take her.
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Many of the librarians with whom I spoke had been forced out following the reorganization of 2007–08, and some had signed . . .agreements . . .not to “disparage or encourage or induce others to disparage” the library. . . . Nonetheless, almost every single former librarian with whom I spoke opposed the plan to renovate the main branch. . . . they said, “The administration doesn’t care about research.”
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. . . former librarians attributed the changes to the increasing presence of a new kind of board member—hedge fund managers, private equity kingpins (Stephen Schwarzman of the $100 million gift), and media tycoons like ex officio trustee Michael Bloomberg, whose mayoral administration has contributed mightily to the war chest that will make the renovation possible. . . .
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Many conversations returned to the figure of David Offensend, co-founder of Evercore Partners, a private equity firm with a market capitalization of a billion dollars. Offensend joined the library in 2004, . . . he now serves as chief operating officer. . . . It was under Offensend that Booz Allen was brought in; it was under Offensend, and in the wake of the Schwarzman gift, that the ambitious plan to fundamentally reconfigure the library took shape. . . . We can see here the familiar arithmetic of corporate downsizing.
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The public has been consulted only very minimally on the library’s decisions. There was no open architectural competition for the design of the renovation; there have been no public forums for a discussion of the plan in general.
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Of all the justifications for the renovation, none is more disingenuous and misleading than the claim that the library is simply trying to make the main building more “democratic.” This is a facility that has stood for over a century and provided unparalleled service to a public that no other institution gives a damn about. It is the most democratic research library in the world, far more welcoming to the average user than the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, or the Library of Congress, let alone the libraries at Harvard and Yale. . . .
. . . . While the administration at the New York Public Library likes to pretend the renovation will not affect researchers, when pressed they insist the main building must be “democratized.” The result is a bad dialectic between the casual readers, who like to check out books, and the fussy, over-educated “elite” readers, who want obscure volumes. . . .
More than anything, this rhetoric reveals the fundamentally anti-democratic worldview that has taken hold at the library. It is of a piece with what the new Masters of the Universe have accomplished in the public schools, where hedge funders have provided the lion’s share of the backing for privatization, and in the so-called reforms to our financial system, where technocrats meet behind closed doors to decide what will be best for the rest of us. Oligarchs acting in the people’s name (with the people’s money) is not democratic; selling off New York’s cultural patrimony to out-of-town heiresses, closing down treasured divisions and branches, pushing out expert staff, and shipping books to a warehouse in the suburbs, all without consulting the public, is not democratic. If the reconstruction goes through, scholarly research will be more, not less, concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities. The renovation is elitism garbed in populist rhetoric, ultimately condescending to the very people the library’s board thinks they’re serving. . . .
The New York Public Library is an institution that embodies the altruistic principle that education is the great societal elevator. It was founded in the belief that everyone should have access to the resources necessary for self-improvement. Unfortunately, with the NYPL’s pursuit of the Central Library Plan, it appears that mission may have become a thing of the past.• New York Times: Employees Feel Silenced on Library Project, by Robin Pogrebin, May 23, 2012.
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At its core, the NYPL’s Central Library Plan eviscerates the heart of the 42nd Street Library building while disenfranchising the millions of New Yorkers who use the Library’s services. In essence a real estate deal conceived to maximize profits through decreasing services, the over $300 million dollar plan proposes to remove the interior stacks of the New York Public Library building. . .
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Furthermore, contrary to NYPL’s public statements, the stacks were upgraded with modern fire-suppression systems within the last 15 years and while their climate control systems could certainly be further improved, the expense of modernization is nothing compared to the cost of removal.
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. . . .This is a downsizing of the NYPL, squeezing a heavily-used circulating library and another heavily-used research library into the central library, which already has around two million visitors a year. This is not about providing access to patrons denied it, nor about providing new services. . . .
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. . . .The New York Public Library is arguably a nearly perfect design for uniting New Yorkers with knowledge in much the same way that Grand Central Terminal is a nearly perfect design for uniting New Yorkers with transportation. Great public buildings both serve and inspire their users and the Library, a truly democratic and free institution, does just that in its current form.
The New York Public Library’s plan . . . has unleashed a torrent of commentary . . . But one highly informed contingent has been notably silent: former curators, department heads and librarians.• The Wall Street Journal: Clueless at the Corcoran- What the museum's latest bad decision says about nonprofit governance, by Eric Gibson, February, 24, 2014.
. . . former employees . . .eager to participate in the debate over the $300 million proposal, known as the Central Library Plan . . . can’t because they signed a nondisparagement agreement when they left, promising not to criticize the library in exchange for . . . severance.
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“I’d like to comment, but I can’t,” said John Milton Lundquist, a longtime curator at the library who retired in 2009.
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“It does raise the question, what are they afraid people are going to say?” said Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. . . .
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. . . employees [are prohibited] from commenting to the news media or other entities with which the library does business in a way that could “adversely affect in any manner the conduct of the business of any of the library entities (including, without limitation, any business plans or prospects)” or “the business reputation of the library entities” . .
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Annette Marotta, a research librarian at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center . . . passed up several thousand dollars in severance when she left in 2010, . . .
. . “It was hush money,” she said.
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. . . “If decisions aren’t being made behind closed doors,” . . .why had the library “gagged everyone?”
. . . the untold story of our time is the emerging crisis in nonprofit governance, where boards embark on policies that go against-and even imperil-the mission of the institution they are charged to oversee and protect.• The Brooklyn Eagle (Exclusive): Brooklyn Public Library in line for audit, says Comptroller Stringer, by Mary Frost, February, 28, 2014.
. . . The New York Public Library wants to gut its magnificent Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue and change it from a research institution to, as Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in this newspaper, "a state-of-the-art, socially interactive, computer-centered" circulating library, with fewer books, a good number of them moved off-site.
Groups opposing the controversial sales of Brooklyn and Manhattan library branches to developers have long been pushing for an audit of the BPL and NPL systems. . .• Translationista: A Tour of the NYPL Stacks, by Susan Bernofsky, February 1, 2014.
“Some of the things raised with respect to the Queens library system are interesting and worth investigating but the Queens expenditures ($140K for a conference deck) are penny ante compared to the library sales at the NPL and the BPL,” commented Michael D. D. White, a founding member of Citizens Defending Library, following a Brian Lehrer interview with Comptroller Stringer. “The Queens Library system has not been selling off libraries like the other two,” White added.
Yesterday I was invited to tour the stacks at the 42nd Street Library as part of a delegation from the PEN American Center, which the NYPL is hoping to win over to its cause. The purpose of the tour was to convince us that the demolition of the stacks is necessary and a contribution to service and scholarship. What I saw convinced me of the opposite.
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There was also a striking discrepancy between what we were seeing and the talking points that our hosts, Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Ken Weine, kept repeating as we walked.
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When I asked Mary Lee Kennedy if she knew what could be causing delivery problems [a two-day lag between requesting a book and getting an email saying that it was "in the process of being delivered"-which meant even more days for books to be delivered and available on site] she said that the closing of traffic around Times Square in preparation for this weekend's Super Bowl had interfered with the ability of the trucks bringing books from NJ. .
CONTACT: To contact Citizens Defending Libraries email Backpack362 (at) aol.com.
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The first petition (gathered over 17,000 signature, most of them online- available at signon.org with a background statement and can still be signed). On June 16, Citizens Defending libraries issued a new updated petition that you can sign now: