• Email
  • Print

In Defense of the New York Public Library’: An Exchange

In response to:

In Defense of the New York Public Library from the June 7, 2012 issue

letters_darnton-071212
Copyright ©1962 by Maurice Sendak, renewed 1990 by Maurice Sendak
Original drawings by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves’s The Big Green Book, 1962; from the Rosenbach Museum and Library’s exhibition ‘Maurice Sendak: A Legacy.’ For more on Sendak, see Alison Lurie’s essay in this issue.

To the Editors:

Robert Darnton joins the editors of the Daily News and The New York Times by dismissing critics of the plan to restructure the New York Public Library as backward-looking sentimentalists inspired more by passion than by reason [“In Defense of the New York Public Library,” NYR, June 7]. In this he misjudges the motivation and the seriousness of the hundreds who have signed a letter to library president Anthony Marx, including contributors to The New York Review such as Colm Tóibín, Darryl Pinckney, Frances FitzGerald, Luc Sante, Francine Prose, Anthony Grafton, Benjamin Kunkel, Lorin Stein, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering-Lewis, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Galassi, and Tom Stoppard. His response ignores many of the questions we have raised and evades others.

(1) Darnton says that the savings from the closing of the Mid-Manhattan branch and sibl [the Science, Industry and Business Library, at 34th Street] will be used for staff, but he doesn’t explain how that will happen. In fact, we don’t see how savings related to operation of the buildings (paid for by the city) will translate into an ability to pay curatorial staff (paid for by endowment funds).

(2) As far as we know, there are no plans to restore staff positions that have already been cut—cuts that have already dramatically affected service at the NYPL, causing long waits for books that once took minutes to locate. Also, as far as we know (and Darnton doesn’t tell us), there are no plans to reinstate the many curatorial and bibliographic positions that have been eliminated at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.

(3) Darnton does nothing to correct the confusion in library accounts of the plan to relocate the research collections. The library’s president has conceded that twenty-four-hour delivery service has not always been achieved (and we have collected ample testimony to that fact). Adding more frequently used titles to the mix at the library’s facility in New Jersey makes success in the future less likely. Darnton mentions the library’s $20 million projected cost of making the second level of the underground stacks in Bryant Park operational as an impediment to keeping more of the research collection on site, but forgets that a new capital investment would be necessary to house these same materials at the New Jersey site, where the library has nearly exhausted its allocated space.

(4) Darnton suggests that the library should focus more on African-American studies. Does he mean there will be attention to the deteriorating conditions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, or does he have something else in mind?

(5) Darnton dismisses objections to having a circulating library in the 42nd Street building, seeming to equate the ability to borrow books with greater democracy. He seems not to appreciate the fact that the library is already the most democratic institution of its kind in the world and that it is open to anyone who needs to use it (unlike university libraries such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and NYU). Allowing books to circulate will hamper the library’s ability to serve all its clients; diminishing, not increasing, their access.

(6) Darnton does not engage the objections voiced by a large number of preservation architects, who have analyzed the relationship between the structure and function of the building, arguing that the extensive rebuilding makes this a cost-inefficient way to rehouse the Mid-Manhattan Library and the SIBL.

This accumulation of concerns reflects on a consistent course of conduct by the library’s administration that, out of public view, has made ill-considered choices often contrary to the best interest of scholars. The disengagement from the community and the confusing communication of its plans are of the library’s own making, but as a scholar on the library board Darnton doesn’t explain why there has been no public disclosure of the full plan for the library, and why the administration and the trustees have been so unwilling to be fully accountable to the public they claim to serve.

The issue for us is not an irrational attachment to a lost past, but rather a wish to be sure that the future being constructed meets the needs of each community served by the library, including the scholars and writers among us who have long been sustained by its collections and by the curators and bibliographers who maintain them.

Those who wish to read and sign the letter can find it here.

Joan W. Scott
Professor of Social Science
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Five million research collection books are stored in the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building and in the underground facility next door to it. The trustees and administrators of the library propose removing three million and replacing them with a new circulating library. Robert Darnton, one of the trustees, defends the plan in an essay titled “In Defense of the New York Public Library.” I hope Darnton understands that we critics of the plan feel just as strongly as he does that we are writing “in defense of the New York Public Library.”

The underground facility just west of the 42nd Street building has two floors, only one of which is currently in use. I am happy to learn that Darnton supports bringing the second floor into service, if the trustees decline to reconsider their proposal.

I continue to hope, however, that they will reconsider. There have traditionally been two wonderful things about the 42nd Street library. First, it has been open to anyone. Visitors don’t need to have an academic affiliation; they needn’t have graduated from high school, let alone college. Second, the building has put millions of books within easy reach. Because researchers can’t check books out, a book is available unless another reader is consulting it at that very moment. Unlike in a university library, where professors and graduate students fall into the habit of hoarding books in their specialties, it has long been possible at 42nd Street to run quickly along a daisy chain of sources, following a footnote to a new title, and then a footnote in that book to yet another. It concerns me that the research library is experimenting with lending books out, because I fear it compromises the library’s unique culture, as I’ve written on my personal blog, at bit.ly/nypl-culture.

Off-site storage is inevitable, but so is death, and one needn’t on that account embrace it. Every research library that I can think of has kept a large, core collection on site. The core is like an engine. If you can’t make it bigger, you can try to make it more efficient. But the library’s administrators are proposing to make theirs smaller—to replace a five-million-book engine with a two-million-book engine. That’s like putting a lawnmower engine into a car.

Somewhat confusingly, Darnton looks forward to the day when “the Internet will replace the New Jersey Turnpike as a conduit linking books to readers” but concedes that we critics are right to object to delays in book delivery now and that we are correct in our understanding that copyright laws will oblige scholars to consult ink-on-paper books for the foreseeable future. All we’re asking is for the library to wait a few years, until the crystal ball is a little more clear. Is it prudent for an institution like the New York Public Library to be bleeding-edge?

Darnton writes that critics of the plan “seem to think that the library has $350 million in the bank.” In fact we understand that the plan relies on $150 million promised by the City of New York and $200 million to be realized from the sale of two library properties—in other words, taxpayer money and the gifts of earlier benefactors. Wherever the money comes from, don’t we have the right to wonder if it’s being spent wisely? For a while, library officials said publicly that they estimated that consolidation would save $10 to $15 million a year, but at a public discussion held at the New School on May 22, Anthony Marx, the library’s president, conceded that consolidation would save only $7 million a year, and that the annual bottom line would improve by another $5 million only if new fundraising raises the endowment. It would be a tremendous risk to spend $350 million for the sake of an annual savings of only $7 million. Moreover, no one has yet explained where precisely those savings would come from—an explanation that we critics have repeatedly asked for.

Few things in this world need to be thought of in all-or-nothing terms. What if the trustees and administrators closed and sold only the Science, Industry and Business Library, leaving the 42nd Street research building intact and renovating the popular Mid-Manhattan Library? Darnton complains that renovating Mid-Manhattan would be pricey, but even by the library’s own estimates, it would be about $200 million cheaper than gutting and reconstructing the 42nd Street building. In a compromise plan, the library would gain capital by selling one of its real estate properties, and it would gain savings by consolidating three buildings into two. The combination of spending less and taking a portion of consolidation’s economies might even be better for the library’s annual bottom line than the plan proposed by the administrators, as I’ve suggested at bit.ly/new-plan.

The abrupt 2008 shuttering of the Slavic division raised doubts about the library’s research mission, and I’m happy that in recent debates, its leaders have renewed their commitment to hiring expert curators and bibliographers. The information age is challenging the New York Public Library in many ways, including a new expectation of institutional transparency. I hope the library will soon lift the gag order it places on many of its retiring staff members and create a standing advisory committee of reader- researchers, free to speak their minds.

Caleb Crain
Brooklyn, New York

To the Editors:

Robert Darnton, in his defense of the New York Public Library’s plan to sell two libraries, destroy the main stacks at 42nd Street, and send 4.5 million books to New Jersey, points to the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale, and the University of California as research libraries that have accepted the “hard reality” of off-site storage. The users of the New York Public Library already accept this reality: 2.9 million volumes were off-site as of last year. While the institutions to which Darnton refers do make use of off-site storage, none has eliminated a significant amount of on-site storage, and all still keep a majority of books on-site: Berkeley has 6.3 million volumes on-site, with 5 million volumes off-site; Yale has 8.8 million volumes on-site, with 4 million volumes off-site; Harvard has 8 million volumes on-site, with 8 million volumes off-site; the Library of Congress has 31 million volumes on-site, with 3 million volumes off-site. (All of these figures are approximate.) If Darnton wants to defend the library’s plan, he should at least acknowledge that it is unprecedented.

But the comparison to other libraries is only one of many misleading arguments in Darnton’s article. He states that “most of the three million volumes from the old stacks will remain in the building”; in fact, only half of the books from the old stacks, 1.5 million, will remain “in the building,” and this will only be possible by moving them into storage beneath Bryant Park, thus displacing the 1.2 million books already held in that storage area, all of which would have to be shipped to New Jersey. Darnton says the library needs more funds “owing to the increasing costs of books, periodicals, and digital data”; as it turns out, when adjusted for inflation, the acquisitions budget is one of the few items that the library has barely increased in the past twenty years, while the total budget went up by tens of millions of dollars.

Darnton proudly observes that the administration “will not touch the famous façade on Fifth Avenue” and says that users of the new library will enter through “a separate ground-level entrance”; he neglects to mention that the library administration hopes to create this separate entrance through the demolition of at least part—quite possibly a significant part—of the library’s Bryant Park façade. So much for incorporating “the Mid- Manhattan Library in the 42nd Street building without violating the integrity of the original design.”

Darnton suggests that in choosing which books to send to New Jersey the administration will “select those that have never or rarely been consulted during the past decade”; in fact, the library only has data on which books have been used in the past five years, because it throws out call slips to protect patrons’ identities. Darnton claims that “over 90 percent of all the books and research materials requested by readers in a typical year…will remain at 42nd Street”; he does not say how this figure was calculated, nor more specifically whether it is the result of “customer segmentation analysis,” a technique recommended to the library by the consultant firm Booz Allen, in which case his statement could well mean that for, say, the 90 percent of users who come to the library and ask for one or two books, materials will be present, while for the 10 percent of users who come and ask for ten or twenty books, research will be significantly impaired. Darnton points to the social sciences and economics as fields where the library should concentrate its acquisitions; by contrast, Denise Hibay, head of collection development, told me that the library has “reduced or stopped acquiring” in criminal justice, education, and psychology, and Victoria Steele, director of collections strategy, said that the library is “shaping our collections to make sense for our users. So genealogy, but not maybe advanced-level economics.”

While I have great respect for Darnton as a champion of libraries, I am afraid that his commitments as a trustee of the New York Public Library have blinded him to the evident problems with the plan that has been proposed. For another view, readers may wish to consult my own investigative essay on the library’s proposal, “Lions in Winter” (bit.ly/lions-in-winter), which has just been published by n+1.

Charles Petersen
Associate Editor, n+1 magazine
Brooklyn, New York

Robert Darnton replies:

No one disputes the importance of maintaining the New York Public Library as a great center for research—I least of all. I wrote my first scholarly article while sitting in what is now the Rose Main Reading Room at 42nd Street and consulting rare French works that could not be found anywhere else in the city. It was 1964, and I was a reporter for The New York Times—that is, an independent researcher lacking any attachment to an institution with a research library. Without the NYPL, I could never have made that first leap into the world of learning.

Now that I am a trustee of the library, I feel more strongly than ever that it should serve the cause of research and the needs of researchers, especially writers and scholars who do not have access to a great library. I can testify that the Board of Trustees is committed to that mission.

I never referred to Joan Scott and the other critics of the renovation plan as “backward-looking sentimentalists,” and I agree with Professor Scott’s objection to any argument that stigmatizes the critics for being “undemocratic.” At issue is the need to revive a great research library. It should be possible to discuss the means to that end in a rational manner without resorting to epithets and overheated rhetoric.

The discussion turns on financial and logistical calculations. I won’t repeat my argument about the growing disparity between the library’s expenditures and income. Instead, I would like to respond to the most important counterproposals of the critics. Charles Petersen, in recent statements, recommends that the library sell the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) at 34th Street, and use the proceeds (probably $100 million) to renovate the Mid-Manhattan branch (which will cost $150 million or more), and store the books from Mid-Manhattan in SIBL during the two years that it would take for the renovations. I fail to see how we could store books in a building we no longer own (not to mention how we would accommodate Mid-Manhattan’s 1.5 million visitors a year); nor do I see how we could cover the $50 million disparity in the funding.

In his letter and blog post, Caleb Crain offers a more persuasive version of this argument: move SIBL’s books to 42nd Street, move Mid-Manhattan’s to SIBL while restoring Mid-Manhattan, pay for the restoration with $150 million earmarked by the city for incorporating Mid-Manhattan in the renovation of the main library at 42nd Street, and sell SIBL in order to increase the endowment.

Whether all this shifting about of books is possible (there is no room at 42nd Street to house SIBL’s collection) seems dubious; whether the mayor and the City Council would renegotiate the agreement to renovate the main library seems unlikely. If such a feat could be accomplished, I would say, Avanti! But the library has studied this and many other combinations and has concluded that they are unfeasible for the reasons I have given. The library’s Central Library Plan (CLP) would raise $350 million by combining the city funds with the sale of the other two libraries in order to integrate Mid-Manhattan in a renovated building at 42nd Street. By eliminating duplication and streamlining operational costs, the library would have available up to $15 million a year (the library’s David Offensend has confirmed that this estimate is based on $7 million of operating savings plus up to $8 million in expected additional endowment income to invest in expanding its collections and staff). That sum is equivalent to the returns on $300 million more in endowment.

True, the CLP would require moving a great many books to the off-site storage facility in Princeton, and they would include up to 1.5 million of the three million works currently stored under the Rose Main Reading Room (not the books now stored under Bryant Park), because those stacks will have to be removed in order to leave room for the construction of the new branch library. In the days of card catalogs, the removal of so many books could cause serious inconvenience to the researchers on the third floor. Today, they can be ordered electronically and in advance (the library is installing a new interface to make that easier) so that they will arrive well before the reader comes to receive them.

The critics of the CLP complain that delivery from Princeton sometimes takes more than twenty-four hours. It should not, and the library is taking measures to guarantee twenty-four-hour or shorter delivery—no great engineering feat, especially as the most-used books, 90 percent of those requested annually by readers at 42nd Street, will remain on-site.

The library will not remove its “core collection,” as Caleb Crain claims; nor will a reader’s chance of using an on-site book drop from 70 percent to 20 percent, as Charles Petersen calculates.

Mr. Petersen assumes that usage is spread out evenly across the collection—i.e., that all the books are used at about the same rate. But many books are consulted rarely or not at all, and many others are available in digital form. The librarians of the NYPL will cull through the collection in order to ship the least-used and the digitized books to Princeton. In calculating that 90 percent of the books requested in a given year will remain on-site, the librarians studied actual usage. They did not rely on “customer segmentation analysis” or outside consultants as Mr. Petersen writes. Booz Allen ceased to serve the library as a consultant nearly three years ago.

If we could build another floor of stacks under Bryant Park, we could keep more books close to readers, an excellent project, but where would we find the $10–20 million to execute it? Where would we store the books that will continue to pour in after those stacks are full? No great research library can continue to cram books indefinitely into its home site. The Bodleian Library of Oxford University ran out of space several years ago and began stashing books wherever it could find some room, including an abandoned salt mine in Cheshire. Finally, in 2010, it opened a book storage facility near Swindon, twenty-eight miles away, where it can keep 8.4 million volumes.

At Harvard we opted for off-site storage twenty-six years ago. Many faculty members opposed this plan at first; but they soon understood that the alternative was to fill most of Harvard Yard with shelving, and now they enjoy reliable, twenty-four-hour service from a depository located thirty miles from the campus. By 2012 it contained 9.1 million items (of which books and archival material comprised 8.1 million), as distinct from the 3 million volumes in Widener, the main on-site library. The overall collection includes nearly 17 million volumes.

But I do not understand why Charles Petersen considers it so important to calculate the size of on-site storage relative to offsite storage, because at some point in the near future all research libraries will have to house an increasing proportion of their collections at a considerable distance from their reading rooms. In the far-off future, they may solve the storage problem by transmitting texts electronically, but copyright restrictions now prevent them from making the most of electronic document delivery. The problem is particularly acute for the NYPL, which lacks the advantages of most university libraries. It has no campus, not enough additional room at 42nd Street, no reasonably priced real estate for a storage site nearby, and no choice but to invest its limited resources in developing the best possible off-site facility.

Moreover, off-site storage offers advantages, such as improved temperature control (temperatures in the stacks under the Rose Main Reading Room fluctuate widely, reaching as high as 80 degrees, while those in the Princeton depository remain steady at an optimal 55 degrees) and savings (the cost of storing a book in Princeton is half as much as storing a book under Bryant Park). Readers cannot browse through the closed stacks at 42nd Street, but the library will soon offer digital browsing so that readers can examine its collections in Princeton as well as New York, with online views of book covers and tables of contents. Electronic browsing can be faster and deeper than chasing a “daisy chain” of footnotes by ordering one physical book after another.

As to the pilot experiment of lending books in cooperation with Columbia and NYU, it can be canceled if it deprives NYPL patrons of books they want. So far, it has worked to their advantage. It has been used by eight hundred people, of whom 90 percent are readers from the NYPL, and they include CUNY faculty who now for the first time have access to books in the other university libraries as well as to those at 42nd Street.

Some of the library’s critics object in principle to installing a circulating library in the 42nd Street building. One existed there until 1981, and it was then replaced by the Mid-Manhattan branch on the other side of Fifth Avenue. In retrospect, it now looks like a mistake to have built two new libraries, Mid-Manhattan and SIBL, in the center of the city. That expansion seemed reasonable during the 1980s, but today, in the midst of a disastrous recession, we need to consolidate, not to expand.

How to consolidate most effectively—that is the question we must answer. The library’s trustees have studied it for more than a decade. They have discussed the renovation plan repeatedly in meetings open to the public, and in September they will receive more detailed plans, which should be submitted to public debate—including, I hope, discussion at an advisory council to be composed both of researchers and of readers from the branch libraries.

Whatever the final plan may be, it will not involve demolition of the Bryant Park façade in order to create a new entrance, as is claimed in one of the letters. Such destruction would be illegal, because the façade is protected by the Landmark Commission. Visitors to the circulating library will probably use a redesigned version of the current 42nd Street entrance. If a door should be added on the Bryant Park side, it would be inserted below the level of the façade.

Most of the current debate concerns the main library at 42nd Street, but the trustees are also committed to improving the research libraries at Lincoln Center and in Harlem. Far from having let the Schomburg Center deteriorate, the library administrators completed a major renovation of its research and reference areas in 2007, and a second phase of the renovation program, which will strengthen its manuscripts and rare book areas, will soon be underway.

  • Email
  • Print