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Don’t Mess with Patience or Fortitude: The Demise of the Central Library Plan

By (May 11, 2014) No Comment

library_lionIn an interesting and surprising turnaround last week, the New York Public Library decided to scrap its controversial Central Library Plan. The proposed renovation, originally presented in 2008, would have sold off two of NYPL’s properties and opened up space in its iconic central building by relocating three million of the books in its stacks—half to a storage space to be built out underneath the existing building, and the other half sent to an offsite shelving facility in New Jersey, to be accessed via online request.

The 1910 Beaux-Arts Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street—that’s the one with the lions—has always been NYPL’s centerpiece. With 75 miles of shelves and an enormous public reading room set over seven floors of stacks, it served as a circulating library until 1981, when circulation services were moved to the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street. In 2008, Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman donated $100 million to NYPL, and the landmark building was given his name. Schwarzman’s gift, however, was earmarked specifically for a series of proposed changes to the building. The Central Library Plan, put together by library trustees with a notable lack of transparency, municipal oversight, or public involvement, was met with a wide range of criticism from writers, researchers, and patrons of all stripes—mainly concern that moving so many of the library’s holdings offsite would mean difficulties for researchers, long wait times for requested books, and a general decline of the egalitarianism NYPL is famous for. The plan was also seen as diverting much-needed funds from smaller branch libraries in need of repair—NYPL has 87, in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island—and there was serious doubt as to the wisdom of deaccessioning two well-used branches, the Science, Industry, and Business Library and the above-mentioned Mid-Manhattan.

This last soon turned out to be something of a non-issue because NYPL couldn’t sell either space. And in addition to prominent criticism from all corners, including New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmel and the Wall Street Journal‘s Ada Louise Huxtable, recently-elected Mayor Bill DeBlasio has been unenthusiastic about the idea since his campaign days. According to NYPL president Anthony Marx, the combination of general condemnation and lack of support from the new administration proved to be too much tide—and too much City Hall—to fight.

As chivalrous as that all sounds, I don’t doubt for a minute that public opinion counted for a whole lot less in the decision than financial constraints. But as a card-carrying member of that public, and a library card-carrying one at that, I’m happy with the outcome no matter what. I think every NYPL patron had something personal they disliked about the plan; in my case, I couldn’t shake the feeling that selling the Mid-Manhattan branch was like sending an old dog to the shelter. In the heady days of pre-Google visual research, I spent many earnest hours shuffling through big brown folders in the Picture Collection—nothing I’m actually nostalgic for, but it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little sentimental for the entire ungainly, slightly dingy building. Mid-Manhattan has none of the Schwartzman building’s vaulted archways, ceiling murals, or parquet flooring. But it was a good place to take out books—which is, of course, the whole point. I hope NYPL can find a way to spread their funds around a bit more evenly. And while I’m the last person to balk at the idea of progress, this is one instance where I’m glad to see things stay a little closer to the way they already are.

(Photograph is Fashion shot featuring a Library lion, published in Seventeen Magazine, Aug. 1952, courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.)

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