info 01.22.14

NYPL: The Dark Ages

The New York Public Library is on the verge of doing grave, irreparable damage to itself and to the city. Somebody hide the sharps.

Executives and trustees of the institution say that restoring the financial health of the NYPL was the impetus behind the $300 million Central Library Plan. The scheme, however, concocted with little transparency, is kill-it-to-save-it idiocy; if fully implemented, it would be this century's version of the 1963 Penn Station demolition.

So far, management has closed the much-loved Donnell branch. It will reopen in the same spot on West 53rd Street, except it will be mostly underground beneath the Baccarat Hotel. The architect, Enrique Norten, notes, without irony, of the new Donnell design, "It has become more like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other. It's not really about just being a repository of books."

You know what's a great place to encounter each other? New York City. New York City streets and bars and restaurants. Call us old school, but we like a library to be a repository of books.

It gets worse. Not only does the plan include selling off the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Business Library (a boon for developers), the Norman Foster design eviscerates the Carrère and Hastings building.

The most controversial part of the plan originally called for removing the seven stories of book stacks and sending three million items to storage in Princeton, New Jersey. After howls of protest, the library built additional shelving under Bryant Park to hold half of the off-shored books. But the stacks would still go, and with them, the intellectual bedrock of New York City.

As it is now, scholars who request books often wait days, sometimes more than a week to get a book they want, if the book can be found at all. It's no way to run a library. Removing the stacks denatures the very idea of a research library, even in the digital age, yes.

Ada Louise Huxtable, in her last essay before her death, wrote about the Central Library Plan, "There is no more important landmark building in New York than the New York Public Library, known to New Yorkers simply as the 42nd Street Library, one of the world's greatest research institutions…This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library's original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity."

On the NYPL website, the page devoted to the renovation leads off with this statement: "The New York Public Library is restoring its landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to its original purpose of providing library services for 'the free use of all the people.'"

We call bullshit here. It already provides library services for the free use of all the people. NYPL's recent appeal for support is pure disingenuous agitprop, promising "a renovated central branch library that provides longer hours, more public space, and more resources for children, teachers, job seekers, and more."

Recently, the NYPL created this misleading campaign to urge the Mayor and city leaders to support the Central Library Plan without any real specifics or even referring to the plan itself by name. Gutting the stacks is glossed over as an "update" on the "infrastructure of our library buildings." Ms. Huxtable said, "You don't 'update' a masterpiece."

During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio opposed the plan. If you really want to help the NYPL, read more on the Committee to Save the New York Public Library and Save NYPL sites. Tell the Mayor to halt the Central Library Plan.

In-depth reporting on the whole sordid history at The Nation, including:

Time Is Running Out for Mayor Bill de Blasio to Halt the New York Public Library's Disastrous Renovation Plan

The Hidden History of New York City's Central Library Plan

• New Criterion's article Philanthropic tyranny at the NYPL [It's $3.99 but worth it.]

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