Photo by James Jowers (George Eastman House Collection)

In explaining its decision this week to abandon the proposed Central Library Plan, the New York Public Library claimed to have both overestimated and underestimated its powers. Instead of embarking on an ambitious renovation of the landmark main Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the library will instead renovate the Mid-Manhattan branch, an alternative it had long dismissed as impractical. We may never know the full story behind the library’s motivations for shelving a plan whose justification was never clear to begin with.

The library wanted to sell two facilities in midtown—Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue—and use those funds, plus $150 million from the city, to renovate the main branch. The stacks, the seven floors of shelves that once held the core of the research collection, would have been gutted and replaced by a new circulating library. In addition to being expensive, the plan was highly unpopular. Despite ham-handed attempts to develop grassroots support for the Central Library Plan, including payment of “$25,000 to a well-connected lobbyist whose task was to mobilize the Teamsters, construction unions, clergy and immigrant leaders,” the library never came close to matching the level of passion sustained by opponents of the initiative, including researchers, preservationists, journalists, literary figures, architectural critics, public officials, and activists. Supporters were either somehow affiliated with the library, such as trustee Robert Darnton, or mostly focused on deflating the opposition’s more extreme rhetoric.

The critics were more right than wrong. Take the issue of selling off public space, which so outraged left wingers such as Public Advocate Letitia James. In principle, the library should be able to consider selling assets in the interest of savings and efficiency. Mid-Manhattan is a stuffy, rank facility that few would miss. At the same time, space is at premium in New York City, and libraries should not feel cramped.

A Daily News editorial mocked the claims of “change-resistant protesters” that “the renovations were an attack on scholarship.” But it must be remembered that the main branch on 42nd Street is a research library, not a lending branch. Though the library did take some steps to accommodate researchers in the Central Library Plan—most notably adding more storage space for books underneath Bryant Park—under any scenario, the plan would have resulted in a diminishment of research services.

The library’s failure to carry the day was rooted in incoherence over the initiative’s necessity. When the library first unveiled its plan six years ago, it was riding high from the effects of the mid-2000s bull market on its endowment and a $100 million gift from financier Schwarzman. The plan was pitched as a way to make a strong institution even stronger. After the financial crisis and a series of budget cuts, officials shifted their emphasis to claims about the plan’s savings and efficiency gains. But the projected benefit to the library’s bottom line ($15 million) always seemed disproportionately small relative to the $300 million to $350 million price tag and the risk inherent in such a complicated construction project.

The New York Public Library prides itself on being in step with the times, but it was also wary to describe the Central Library Plan as a technology play. Officials insisted they could provide adequate access to the books while also opening up new possibilities with space that formerly housed the stacks. They satisfied no one. Least convincing was the argument that this was somehow done for the sake of the books, said to be deteriorating in the sub-standard conditions in the stacks.

Some have interpreted the library’s acknowledgment that the critics were right as a sign of a more inclusive, post-Bloomberg era. To his credit, Mayor de Blasio did indeed play a constructive role by calling for an audit and review of the project during his campaign. Though not a heroic position to take—the library had by then already announced plans it would seek an independent cost estimate—it was more than most other mayoral candidates did.

The New York Public Library will continue to face challenges related to funding, the institution’s overall purpose, and space (though perfect for access, midtown is not such a great location for housing millions of books, which is why removing the stacks was such an odd idea). Usage levels at library facilities are high, yet this is partly the result of questionable new demands we have placed on libraries, such as providing job assistance for the unemployed and even pre-K. It remains to be seen whether the library’s about-face confuses or clarifies the question of what a library system should be in the twenty-first century.


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