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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

How Many Books Are Disappearing From New York City Libraries?

Venturing into a library to witness scads of empty book shelves is a disorientating experience.  The empty shelves constitute early warning signs: Empty shelves at Mid-Manhattan Library, SIBL, the Brooklyn Heights Library, the Grand Army Plaza Library, the 42nd Street Central Reference Library have meant that these libraries have been targeted to be involved in library sale and shrinkage plans.

It is stunning how many books have disappeared and become unavailable, multiple millions overall.  (Library administration officials have done their best to obscure true counts of the reductions.)  If the books disappear from targeted libraries far enough in advance library administration officials can deceptively promise that there will be as many books after the shrinkage of the library as before.  Another deception is for library officials to claim that if books are exiled to be consolidated elsewhere in a "deduping" center there will actually be "more" books as a result.  ("Deduping" is euphemism for book elimination, the idea being the more books you consolidate in a central location the more books you have that are "duplicates" to be eliminated.)

Amazingly, despite the increasing difficulty in obtaining books NYC book circulation is going up and circulation increases are mainly the physical books that patrons generally prefer.  The idea that because some books (not all- for instance, Robert Caro's "The Power Broker") are available digitally we no longer need libraries to supply physical books is a myth.  That library administration officials disparage physical books as "old-fashioned analogue books" or just "artifactual originals" or that those officials will spend more money to push people in to digital reading than what spending on physical books costs does not make that myth any more true.

When library officials solicit contributions from the general public they will jive about how they are asking for that money in order to buy more books because they know that is a vision the public will support and respond favorably to, but at the same time library officials are less than transparent about how they are actually removing books from library premises and from the system entirely.

The central destination Brooklyn Heights Library, a Federal Depository and a downtown Business Career and Education Library, had to be expanded in 1993 because its book collection had grown so much.  Its education collection held books moved to it for which there was no room at the central Grand Army Plaza Library.  When the BPL was pushing its sale, the architects planning its shrunken replacement had no information to furnish about the book capacity reduction.  When forced they offered information that seriously understated at a mere fraction how many books the 63,000 square foot library held.  Meanwhile, shelves at the Grand Army Plaza Library (where books from the Heights downtown library are supposed to have gone) are increasingly mysteriously empty.

In the 1990s the NYPL liked to brag about how many books were in its principal Manhattan libraries: the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the Science Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and going by published NYPL brags at that time in 1996 there were at least 12 million books, probably likely soon thereafter going up to around 13 million (not counting the Donnell central library.)   The NYPL contacted us to say that these figures were wrong, that New York Times reporter Bruce Weber must have not gotten his book count figures from independent research, not the library official putting out the good news story; that the NYPL Central Reference Libraries only had just over 7.3 million books in 1996 and that across all the NYPL research libraries there were then 12.5 million "books and booklike materials".  But when we asked for a before and after accounting of the number of books in each library (The 42nd Street Central Reference Library, Mid-Manhattan, the now sold-off 42nd Street Annex, the Donnell Library and the Lincoln Center Library where along with Mid-Manhattan books and materials from Donnell were supposed to have been sent) it was not furnished.  (Questions on actual book counts involve addresses where books are obtainable and whether things like government documents or law books are excluded from the count.)

In 1987 the 42nd Street Library construction plans were undertaken to add underground stacks that would give the 42nd Street Central Reference Library (whose books were overflowing into the 42nd Street Annex) book shelf capacity to hold about 6.5 million books (about 172 miles of book shelves). 

However, on March 11, 2014, NYPL president Anthony Marx told the City Council that he did not know whether the 42nd Street Central Library would, under its plans for the future, be able to meet a goal of holding even as many as a minimal "4.2 million books." 

At the tail end of the Bloomberg administration the NYPL hurriedly emptied the research stacks of the 42nd Street Central Library hoping to destroy them.  Those stacks reportedly held the three million books they were famously designed to.  In shell game math, the NYPL suggested it would avoid reducing available books by moving research books to space under Bryant Park that was always intended to expand (not shrink) the number of books, but, according to figures released by the library in 1987, the space available and not yet in use under Bryant Park will hold only 1.4 million books.  Meanwhile, other rooms throughout the 42nd Street building with shelves that were once filled with books lining them are also now emptied of books.  That includes rooms sufficiently large that the NYPL trustees have held trustees meetings in them.

Statistics for SIBL in its September 1997 Trifold Brochure told New Yorkers that the library then held a research collection of 1.2 Million volumes, plus a circulating collection of 40,000 books and videos, over 10,000 business and scientific serials, open shelf-shelf reference offering 60,000 volumes.  (Moreover, it furnished seating for 500 persons with laptop plug-ins, electronic Resource Center with 73 workstations, and an electronic Training Center with seating for 39 persons.)  By 2006, the year before Donnell's sale was announced, SIBL's collection had grown to 1.45 million.  And the number of books found at SIBL now?:  Wander the library and you will find half of the pen shelves empty.  As for book count, the recent handout only mentions a "50,000 open-shelf collection," and with so many of the shelves visibly empty it's questionable whether that can still be accurate.  The research stacks, once the main repository of SIBl's books  (which previously sent those books to patrons through the book elevators behind the librarians desk) are no longer there to hold additional books because the space the stacks occupied was sold by the NYPL.

Might we hope that many of SIBL's books can still be retrieved from the Recap de-duping center in Princeton?: SIBL's librarians told us that many of the missing books patrons request no have to be laboriously gotten back from Chicago.

The Mid-Manhattan Library was designed with a capacity of 700,000 books. The Wall Street Journal reported that, as part of the consolidating shrinkage underway, Mid-Manhattan is being redesigned to hold only 400,000 books and other circulating materials.  And the architect presenting this redesign to the NYPL board of trustees assured them of the stacks holding even this limited number of books: “They are not structural, the shelves, you can take it away later if you want.”  It is important to bear in mind that these assuredly banishable 400,000 books in Mid-Manhattan are supposed to represent the consolidation of books from other central Manhattan destination libraries, the destroyed Donnell and the all of the 1.45 million or more books from SIBL.


Notwithstanding inquiries to the NYPL, we don't yet know how many books the 97,000 square foot, five-story Donnell central library held, but we do know, of that unknown total, approximately 175,000 volumes in the World Language Collection were transferred to Mid-Manhattan from the Donnell when it closed in 2008.

Meanwhile, other libraries elsewhere in other parts of New York are also losing their books with another some 100,000 books or so disappearing from central destination Brooklyn Heights library in downtown Brooklyn, that missing 100,000 representing about three times as many books as are expected to be placed in the shrunk-and-sunk "replacement" library.
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