June 25, 2013

Letter from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library

Central Library at 42nd Street, NYC


Dear Friend, 

On May 1, 2012, some seven hundred well-known scholars, writers, researchers, and teachers, alarmed by a plan for radical redesign of the interior space of the iconic central building of the New York Public Library and radical distortion of its institutional purpose, affixed their names to an appeal addressed to NYPL’s president, Dr. Anthony Marx. I also signed this petition, authored by Professors Joan Scott and Stanley Katz, in the belief that the president of the New York Public Library and his trustees, although misguided in their ambitious designs, possessed an impeccable conception of fiduciary rigor. 

The appeal was one of polite dubiety; its reservations were heuristic rather than confrontational as the signers sought to comprehend what seemed to many a paradigm of drastic self-reinvention, the Central Library Plan (CLP), profoundly antithetical to the history and mission of the magnificent institution entrusted to President Marx and his trustees. “We appreciate the fact that you have established a committee consisting of some critics of the CLP to advise you,” the distinguished signatories acknowledged. But they hoped President Marx would “take a hard look at the plan you’ve been given and revise it so that the splendid culture of research embodied by the NYPL can be maintained. We think the money raised can be better used to preserve and extend what already exists at 42nd Street. Change is always necessary, but not of the kind envisioned by the CLP.” 

Twelve months and some days after this first collective demarche to the officers and trustees of the NYPL, the greatest public research library in America stands empty of its books, its seven levels of stacks supporting the singular Rose Reading Room but days away from removal at a price tag and engineering risk unrevealed to the public and, it is to be feared, that neither Dr. Marx nor the trustees have yet precisely assessed. Its interior space is imminently fated for reconfiguration as a cross between a vast Starbucks and a gleaming Apple store, unless the ill-conceived CLP can be stopped on its well-oiled course to self-destruction. In the twelve months and some days since the original May 2012 appeal was presented to the officers at 42nd Street, many names have been added, a good number famous enough to enjoy celebrity status, along with scholars from Poland, Canada, France and the UK; faculty and graduate students from all over the US (and especially the NY area); as well as writers, poets, and many others who regularly use the research library’s collections. Several fruitless meetings with library officials have occurred. Caveats voiced by the canonical Ada Louise Huxtable and the authoritative architectural critic Michael Kimmelman have fallen on the deaf ears at 42nd Street. Scott Sherman’s investigative journalism twice channeled in the Nation gamely detailed the absurdities of the CLP. Under the informed sway of community organizer Jacob Morris, a half dozen municipal community boards have passed resolutions of disapproval. 

Thus, from that interval in 2012 of apparent mutual good faith to what is now an impassioned standoff in June of this year, the legion of critics of the CLP has long since awakened to the practiced legerdemain of the NYPL’s officers and trustees as the Library’s spokespersons have continually served up patently illogical rationales for their CLP, buttressed by data dubious and invented: (1) zany metrics purporting to give more public library access by shoehorning 300,000 square feet of auctioned library space (Mid-Manhattan and SIBL-the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries) into 80,000 square feet at 42nd Street; (2) voodoo economics that combine $150 million tax dollars with revenues from the NYPL’s own liquidated properties that are calculated to fund, variously, $300 million to $450 million in construction and endowment replenishment, while celebrity architect Norman Foster’s air-terminal sketches of a deconstructed Carrere and Hastings’ palace of learning await (pace Ada Louise Huxtable) their blueprints even yet; (3) institutional mendacity to justify millions of the Library’s books trucked to New Jersey caves and Westchester warehouses on the specious grounds that the stacks (air-conditioned in the 1980s and upgraded in the 1990’s) are somehow inimical to the books’ preservation and that the extensive storage space under Bryant Park at first unmentioned, now at least acknowledged, is to date unutilized despite an announced 8 million-dollar contribution for this purpose. 

For a time of puzzling duration, a truth that dared not speak its name reigned over the CLP debate, or so it seems to the astute Le Monde, whose New York correspondent, writing of one of the climacteric controversies of the Bloomberg era, recently opined: “le plan municipal de rationalization des bibliotheques masque des ambitions immobilieres.” The hypothesis that, stripped to its bare, base essentials, the CLP is a real estate masquerade has occurred to some of us even without the benefit of Cartesian clarity. The hypothesis of “ambitions immobilieres” would perhaps also explain the curious indifference of the mainstream media to the CLP controversy, their virtual silence as the valiant volunteers of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (CSNYPL) and the Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL) have marched with signs and song and stood in serried ranks on the steps of City Hall, 42nd Street, and numerous public buildings in one borough after another. 

The hypothesis of real estate development in play in the CLP would suggest why the issues of the NYPL and its branch libraries fail to find traction in many circles at a time when library usage in New York is greater than attendance at sports events. One can only suspect that a unique combination of complacency, confusion, complicity, dubious compensations, and cravenness explains why a work of vandalism in progress proceeds apace in the cultural capital of our country with surprising inattention from elected representatives, public officials, press lords, guardians of cultural and eleemosynary institutions, heads of research universities, and even, indeed, from the very population of writers and researchers at risk of an existential calamity. 

It is to this population of writers and researchers that this eleventh-hour appeal is addressed, for we are at risk of an indictment by history as deserved for our failure to make our cause one of the defining intellectual and professional commitments of a lifetime as will be the eventual obloquy history reserves for the NYPL’s president and trustees. Before the stacks are ripped like entrails from the body of this living entity guarded by two muzzled lions, we, the well-known scholars, writers, researchers, and teachers, whose ranks boast Pulitzer laureates, Library Lions, MacArthur fellows, celebrity authors, have what will likely be one last meaningful opportunity to prevent a cultural atrocity that beggars the vandalism that befell this city with the destruction of Penn Station, and the near misses of Carnegie Hall and Grand Central Station. Understandably, some of the signers of the May 2012 petition have not followed the lamentable saga described by me. Others may well have become disheartened. All of us have urgent demands placed upon our charged professional calendars. 

A year ago, however, we pledged our commitment to save the New York Public Library. A few days from today, history affords us as citizens of the republic of letters a dramatic opportunity to redeem our pledge. On June 27th, a Thursday, the Standing Committee on Libraries and Education Technology of the State of New York, chaired by Assemblyman Micah Kellner, will hold a public hearing in Manhattan at 250 Broadway to examine “the practice of selling public library buildings to private developers.” The public is invited to submit written “pertinent testimony” as soon as possible. Oral testimony to be limited to “10 minutes duration.” Indeed, your statement for Assemblyman Kellner’s committee could certainly serve also as an arresting newspaper op-ed or indignant letter to the editor. The following LINK provided by the Committee to Save the NYPL facilitates timely compliance with the requirements enabling your participation either in person, via written statement, or both. 

David Levering Lewis, Library Lion, 2002 


PLEASE NOTE: 

If you wish to testify at the hearing, the Assembly requires speakers to pre-register by submitting a 
Public Hearing Reply Form NO LATER THAN TUESDAY AFTERNOON, JUNE 25. 
The form can be submitted via email or fax, and can be found online here: 
http://assembly.state.ny.us/comm/Library/20130610/ 

If you wish to attend but not speak, there is no need to pre-register. 

If you wish to submit testimony but cannot appear in person at the hearing, you can still send a statement in the form of a .pdf or Word document to: 

Lindsey Facteau, Legislative Analyst 
Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology 
Suite 1147, Alfred E. Smith Building 
80 South Swan Street 
Albany, New York 12248 
Email: facteaul@assembly.state.ny.us 

Phone: (518) 455-4881 
Fax: (518) 455-4128

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