May 8, 2013

The New York Public Library: Gutted

Today was a sad day for the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. I was there to support The Committee to Save the NYPL which was protesting the trustee's flawed plan to turn what is now a great research library into a circulating collection, the first step towards that end having already taken place with with the removal off all the books in the library's historic stacks, which are now in a warehouse in New Jersey. 

There is much to be concerned about with the current plan, first and foremost the fact that the trustees have operated in secret, with no oversight and nary a public hearing. Think about it: $300 million or more is going to be spent - $150 million of which will be taxpayer dollars -  to gut a historic building while outlying libraries will be shuttered and sold off, in a system that is already suffering from severe cuts in staff and acquisitions. I know this first-hand having been a regular patron of the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts which has seen a drastic cut in services. 

What is disheartening is that, without significant opposition- say a Jackie Kennedy Onassis who single-handedly stopped the destruction of Grand Central Station, the trustee's plan will probably be implemented. Why? Does anyone really care about the NYPL? I think not. We increasingly live in a world where most people have been lulled into thinking that everything is available on the internet despite evidence to the contrary. We think internet access means total availability of everything we want to know, which is not the case at all.

The sad truth of this story is that, historically speaking, Americans value commerce over culture, music and the arts. The New York Public Library? It is considered an elitist enterprise like the opera or symphony, all of which should, in our nation's increasingly for-profit mentality, must pay its way. Does the public support it? Not really. So the current debacle is about Real Estate, nothing more, and the profit the NYPL system can make from the sale of the same even if it means compromising its mission.

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. You don’t ‘update’ a masterpiece.   - Ada Louise Huxtable, The Wall Street Journal 

I am certain that the current trustees see themselves as the savior of a citywide library system, one that is contracting for lack of funds. The lack of itself? It highlights our nation's priorities which seems intent on dismantling the great cultural institutions of the 19th century, the library at 42nd Street being but one example, the National Archives being another (it has removed many of its records from the building). 

I encourage you to go the link for The Committee to Save the NYPL in the first paragraph of this post and educate yourself. Then, after doing so, I encourage you to take action by writing the trustees, the mayor, the City Council and New York's two senators, which, ironically, can all be found via a moment's googling - and therein lies the problem as already mentioned. Victims of our own success? I think so.  

In the end, this is a people vs books matter, which is clear from the proposal that is to be unveiled this week concerning the much missed Donnell Library (also within the NYPL system) which has been closed since 2008 and is slated to reopen in a high-rise at some point in the future (see here) but has been vastly reduced in size and scope. The trustees of the NYPL seem interested in the former over the latter. Is that a bad thing? Yes, when you consider that the history of a people has everything to do with how it values its records, books, information and access to the same. The trustees will have turned the mission of the NYPL on its head and destroyed a historic building in the process. I fear that, with all the access we think we have (which is an illusion), we are entering a dark age. 

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