My post is an appeal to readers, writers, and scholars who use the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street central research library. That is, all people who make use of this amazing, impressive democratic institution. The NYPL’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP) calls for a fundamental transformation of the 42nd Street space whereby the Mid-Manhattan Circulation Library (across the street at 40th Street) and the Science Industry and Business Library (SIBL, at Madison and 34th) would be incorporated into the 42nd Street location. Up to 3 million books from the central library’s research collection would be sent to an offsite storage facility in New Jersey and the seven floors of stacks that formerly housed these books would be demolished to make room for the circulation library, SIBL’s research collection, a multitude of public-access computers, and an internet café. The CLP will adversely alter the way the public can use the central research library and strike at the very heart of the research library’s egalitarian mission. In his recent article, “Stop Cultural Vandalism,” Scott McLemee rightly declares, “the CLP needs to be stopped” Together we need to decide how we will accomplish this goal.
Implementation of the CLP will impair the ability of writers, readers and scholars to conduct research at the NYPL’s central research library. Patrons organize their library time around heavy, often complicated schedules. We therefore must maximize the time we spend in the library. My requested materials typically arrive together, allowing me to hunker down and get to work. Under the proposed plan, it is impossible to guarantee that all of one’s requested items will arrive together—a significant impediment to maximizing time in the library. What if a few books arrive one day and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days, but a patron cannot be back at the library for another week? And what about the patron who has traveled from outside NYC, and thus has a very limited timeframe in which to conduct research? Or the student who is striving to write a research paper under deadline? Architects of the CLP claim that requested materials would be available within 24 hours. In a piece titled “Improving a Treasured Institution,” NYPL President and CEO Anthony Marx argues that “24-hour turnaround is made possible by major enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item.” Upgrading the means by which books are tracked makes sense. Moving the books offsite does not. Current turnaround for most materials is roughly less than an hour and that is because most of the collection is located in the stacks or in storage under Bryant Park. Touting a projected 24-hour turnaround as a benefit underscores a major flaw of the CLP and the myopia of its supporters: researchers should not have to wait 24 hours—and probably more—for their materials. Indeed, due to time constraints and deadlines, they often cannot.
The CLP also fails to take into account the serendipitous aspect of research. While reading a particular text, I have often been guided to additional sources via footnotes and bibliographical entries. I then request those texts and receive them in an hour or so. Threads of thought have the best chance of coming to fruition when they are unbroken, when one can engage with several texts at the same time. Trying to hold on to a thread—before it even becomes an idea—for days before one can consult a needed text is difficult, if not impossible. A keyboard or a pen and paper are often not enough to keep an idea going. A book is vital to the development of an idea and, if the flow of research is impeded by having to wait longer for materials, then the quality of one’s research will suffer. Given the logistics of peoples’ schedules, many day readers may simply forego by necessity the opportunity to read the books they want to read. Books that people cannot find in circulating collections, books that are out of print, books that are unavailable digitally in their entirety, books that are unaffordable for personal purchase. Circulating and research collections are completely different from one another and one should not be the sacrificial lamb for the other. In response to a query on what will replace the stacks, the NYPL cheerfully declares, “Books!” Does anyone else see the cracks in this veneer?
It is disingenuous to argue that, after the NYPL’s largest circulating library has been folded into the nation’s second-largest public research library, research activities won’t be compromised. They will. Whether one is involved in a years-long research project or has devoted a day to read up on a topic of personal interest, the patron of the research library is there not only because of the collection, but also for the overall environment that the research library provides. The expansive Rose Main Reading Room, whether on a weekday morning or mid-afternoon on a Saturday, provides a conducive place to work. That is because people are there to read and write and this engagement is wonderfully palpable and inspiring. The anticipated spike in traffic from combing three libraries into one is enormous. Lauding this increase, the NYPL boasts, “[t]he number of visitors to the new Schwarzman Building will likely triple, and the percentage of people using the collections will soar.” Try conducting focused research under those conditions! Researchers working on long-term projects may apply to use the Allen Room or the Wertheim Study. There often is a waiting list, though, and access is limited. The CLP calls for the allocation of “dedicated spaces for up to 500 NYPL-affiliated writers and scholars,” however that will still leave the vast majority of research library patrons to try to function as researchers in overcrowded, mixed-use space.
The price of this overhaul is estimated at $300 million. The cost of this overhaul is well beyond dollars. One does not upgrade a world-class public research library by turning it into a glitzy, overcrowded facility. Nor does one upgrade the city’s largest public circulation library by shutting down its current location and reconfiguring it within an existing library. Public access computers can be added without gutting the stacks. Of course money is an issue. It always is. However, if the CLP is the best that the library’s executives can do in light of objectives and budgetary concerns, then they have failed in their stewardship of the NYPL. The library has a page on its website titled “Join the Conversation” through which the public can communicate its concerns. Yet, since comments are not shared through the site, a “conversation” never really materializes and how the comments are handled behind closed doors remains unknown. There is also a Facebook campaign dedicated to stopping the CLP. But we need to do more than “like” it. If we want to assure that the people’s research library continues to operate as such, then we need to collectively, vocally, and tirelessly speak out against the Central Library Plan until it is stopped.