Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Michael Kimmelman’s Unfortunate Suggestion That Amazon Invest In NYC’s Public libraries (per Eric Klinenberg)- See: “Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?”

There are a lot of people alarmed and/or already woeful about the announcement of the imminent arrival of an Amazon headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, even people who have not fully thought through everything there may be to get alarmed about in connection with the book industry-disrupting and imagination-defying growth of Amazon.*  One of those people quickest out of the starting gate with such opinions, is New York Times architect critic Michael Kimmelman.  See: Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?
(* See: National Notice- Interesting to Think That it All Began With BOOKS? Except That Amazon and World’s Wealthiest Man (As We Know Jeff Bezos Today) Didn’t Exactly Begin That Way. . . )
The arrival of Amazon is a huge topic so people will have to do a lot of thinking about it and it is too much to expect that everyone is going to get all their best thoughts together quickly.  This time, Kimmelman, who has done some good work in the past, has some worthwhile observations, but he also falters somewhat unfortunately with respect to his key recommendation.
On the perspicacious side, Kimmelman wonders how well a huge tech company like Amazon will fit in in New York City:
    . . .  the tech industry isn’t culturally urban. Its insularity, secrecy, its bedrock libertarianism and algorithmic notions about progress, land use and corporate independence have never easily meshed with the slow, open-society, regulatory-heavy, greater-good mission that defines city living. Disruption is a virtue and instrument of efficiency in tech circles. But it isn’t repetitiously welcome where protections and a focus on collective welfare remain abiding democratic ideals.
As the title of Kimmelman’s essay implies and as he, in his essay, then directly states, for Kimmelman the, “The question for city residents is what these companies give back.”

That’s hardly the only question, but Kimmelman presents one particularly unfortunate suggested answer.  He suggests that Amazon make “self-interested” investments in NYC public libraries per the thinking of “Eric Klinenberg”:
In turn, Amazon, which dominates the book market, could, up front, make self-interested commitments in local school programs and, as Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, advocates, in public libraries, our most vibrant, multipurpose community hubs.
In other words, Kimmelman clearly sounds as if he is dangerously suggesting that Amazon engage in exactly the kind of public/private partnerships that library administration officials repetitiously crow that they are eager to promote now-a-days, projects that unfortunately commercialize the libraries and are all the more and especially dangerous when the private corporation `partners’ in them are acting `self-interestedly’ . .

Where do we start?  Do we start by saying Amazon, the great disruptor, has already been “partnering” with NYC library administration officials to promote more reading of digital books (in the subways)?  Do we wonder at the fact that Kimmelman, bypassing others (for instance John E. Buschman and Ed D'Angelo), is constituting Eric Klinenberg, “a sociologist at New York University,” as the new automatic go-to expert on what is desirable with respect to public investment in libraries after Klinenberg’s just publishing a book that he just recently put together in short order as the result of his being approached for a “collaborative project” on NYC libraries by the Revson Foundation?—  While Mr. Klinenberg describes the Revson Foundation as a “fierce champion of public libraries,” the foundation can probably more accurately be described as deeply involved in promoting (with behind-the-scenes funding) the current notion of selling libraries and turning them into shrink-and-sink real estate deals, their book collections drastically reduced, the talents and contributions of librarians dramatically deemphasized.

Do we point out that what the Revson Foundation promotes as the new libraries of the 21st Century future is all tied in with the neo-liberal, capitalist, private-market orthodoxy that promotes public/private partnerships between libraries and benefactors like Amazon?  Do we point out how Amazon’s ethos of, and roots in, data collection and its ties to the military, going back and forward, is gratingly at odds with the tradition of libraries as the havens of privacy as free speech requires?  That's what's makes their acting `self-interestedly’ far more scary if they partner on library investments.*
(* Next we are bound to hear that Queens City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who oversees libraries- and their sell-offs- and who has made himself initially visible opposing Amazon's arrival, will fold his opposition to Amazon when Amazon promises such library investments because Van Bramer doesn't believe that concerns about Booz Allen or surveillance in the libraries is real enough to worry about.)
Kimmelman once wrote a very important column of his own lambasting the NYPL's Central Library Plan following in the footsteps of Ada Louise Huxtable’s very last column, published just weeks before her death (Wall Street Journal: Undertaking Its Destruction, December 3, 2012), in which she railed against what they were doing to Manhattan’s central libraries and the elimination of books.  Mr. Kimmelman (New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, January 29, 2013) likewise scorned how the “potential Alamo of engineering, architecture and finance would be irresponsible,” the result of “a not-uncommon phenomenon among cultural boards, a form of architectural Stockholm syndrome.”   We think he also got caught up with the fact that what was happening to the libraries, with its real estate deal underpinnings, was something very different from what was being touted.

When it comes to Amazon, however, Kimmelman seems to have some more catching up to do. . .

. . .  By the way, not too long ago, Forbes ran an op-ed arguing that Amazon should simply replace libraries with Amazon retail outlets–  “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money” (out of embarrassment Forbes quickly took the piece down): At least Kimmelman is not going so far as to make that exact same argument.